- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2013

Growing up playing hockey, Matt Hendricks remembered the kind of language he would hear. It wasn’t always appropriate.

“Words were probably thrown around a little bit too loosely,” the Washington Capitals forward said.

He’s referring to what You Can Play Project co-founder Patrick Burke calls “casual homophobia,” the kind of language he hopes to get rid of as part of an initiative with the NHL and NHL Players’ Association.

“Our players will happily support an openly gay teammate,” Burke said, citing a 2006 Sports Illustrated poll in which 80 percent of NHL players vowed just that. “I have no doubt about that.”

In the immediate future, You Can Play is trying to change the way athletes talk.

“Homophobic slurs are the only slurs that people excuse away as having two meanings. No one ever uses a racial slur and then says, ‘Oh, I don’t mean it in that way,’” Burke said. “We need to get the players’ vocabulary to catch up to where their hearts and minds already are.”

Burke, a Philadelphia Flyers scout and son of Anaheim Ducks scout and ex-Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, spearheaded the creation of the You Can Play Project in March 2012. His younger brother, Brendan, earned international attention for coming out and promoting tolerance for gay athletes.

Brendan Burke died in a car accident in 2010, but in You Can Play, Patrick and many others keep his cause alive by hoping to ensure “equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.”

It’s not always a simple mission, even just to change players’ habits on Twitter.

Boston Bruins star Tyler Seguin took heat this week when he posted the hashtag “#Nohomo.” He promptly deleted the tweet and apologized.

Burke wrote on Twitter that what Seguin did was mildly offensive and that he and his team would discuss it with him, in accordance with NHL/NHLPA guidelines created earlier this month.

“Good apology by Tyler. Deserves credit for stepping up and admitting the mistake,” Burke wrote as part of a series of tweets. “He’s going to sit with us and talk about exactly why it’s a mistake, then we’ll all move on.”

It’s all part of a concerted effort to change the culture of how players talk, sometimes without thinking. Burke said in a recent phone interview that players are only being asked to remove five or 10 homophobic words from their vocabulary.

“It’s sitting there using those words, saying, ‘Oh, that’s so gay,’ when you mean, ‘Oh, that’s not cool,’” he said. “Everything we do is based around education on this issue, that the words that you’re using have an effect on the people around you.”

Hendricks reached out to You Can Play and taped a promotional video after his wife, Kim, encouraged him to get involved to not only be a role model to their young children, Gunnar and Lennon, but to others, as well.

Like a lot of professional athletes, he knows what kinds of words are used and hopes to prevent young players from making the same mistakes. The 31-year-old doesn’t believe eliminating those words is impossible, or even difficult.

“Not if you’re raised that way,” Hendricks said. “The coaches are going to be able to hear what’s said, and they need to say when things aren’t OK. They need to be able to address that.”

That’s an emphasis at the youth level, but the NHL is involved because players are seen as role models. Burke said the language “isn’t perfect but it isn’t terrible,” but eliminating it altogether will take time and effort.

It also may be a long time until an active male athlete in North America comes out as gay, though Burke said that’s more because of the media attention than how that person will be perceived by teammates.

“Especially in the National Hockey League and I believe in all the major sports, the player’s teammates will have no issue with it, the player’s coaches will have no issues with it as long as the player continues to show up and do his job,” Burke said. “I think the reaction from within the sports community is going to be a great big shrug of the shoulders and then everyone goes back to work.”

No matter the sport, the first such athlete will undoubtedly be considered a pioneer, like Jackie Robinson was when he broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 as the first black player in the majors. Burke said his team’s job would be to protect that player or those players from the crush of media attention that’s sure to follow.

“I think the reason that we don’t have athletes out right now is because they do understand [the attention],” Burke said. “We haven’t had a player yet who wants to deal with it.”

Like Burke, Hendricks knows there will be lots of attention for the first openly gay NHL player, but he doesn’t expect backlash within the locker room.

“Obviously there’s going to be a few individuals who it may not sit well with, but on the grand majority, I would feel that we’d talk about it for a day or two and just go on with our business,” he said. “People, I think, for the most part are going to understand it, are going to respect it and realize that, you know, we don’t really have a say in it. It’s not your decision, it’s their decision. We care about our teammates.”

For now, Burke and his team are focused on informing and educating.

“We’ve got the resources and the ability to do what we’ve set out to do, which is have confidential information available to players who need to ask questions or need to reach out, have people that they can talk to who can answer their questions for them,” Burke said. “[We will] keep our work going on the cultural side of things and trying to change sports culture from the top down.”