By JEFF Z. KLEIN and JUDY BATTISTA
Amid heightened speculation that a male athlete in one of North America’s four major professional leagues will soon publicly declare his homosexuality, the National Hockey League and its players announced Thursday what appears to be the most comprehensive measure by a major men’s league in support of gay athletes.
The N.H.L. said it had formed a partnership with the You Can Play Project, an advocacy group pledged to fight homophobia in sports, and planned training and counseling on gay issues for its teams and players. The league will also be involved in the production and broadcast of public-service announcements.
“Our motto is Hockey Is for Everyone, and our partnership with You Can Play certifies that position in a clear and unequivocal way,” N.H.L. Commissioner Gary Bettman said in the statement. “We are delighted to reaffirm through this joint venture with the N.H.L. Players’ Association that the official policy of the N.H.L. is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands.”
In a telephone interview Donald Fehr, the chief executive of the players’ association, said: “Bottom line, it’s the right thing to do, and that’s what we’re all supposed to do in this world.”
You Can Play will help run seminars for N.H.L. rookies to educate young prospects on gay issues and make resources and personnel available to each team. The league and union will also work with You Can Play to integrate the project into their behavioral health program, enabling players to seek counseling regarding matters of sexual orientation confidentially. The joint venture would also step forward when players make homophobic remarks.
Patrick Burke, a founder of You Can Play and scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, said the demographics of the N.H.L., with so many players from Canada and Northern Europe, was part of the reason the league had taken such a big step in support of gay athletes when other top leagues have not.
“We have players from around the world, and a lot of those players are from countries that are seen as more progressive on LGBT issues,” Burke said. “So I don’t think it’s unreasonable or strange to think that the N.H.L. and the N.H.L.P.A. are driving this, in part because our players tend to be more comfortable with this issue.”
Burke helped found You Can Play in March 2012, after the death of his younger brother, Brendan, who was gay. Brendan Burke, a video coordinator and student manager for the Miami University hockey team, died in an auto accident at age 21 in February 2010. Their father is Brian Burke, a prominent longtime hockey executive with the Anaheim Ducks, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the United States Olympicy team. He has been vocal in his support of gay rights, marching in the Toronto pride parade before and after Brendan’s death.
“I think what Brendan did, starting the discussion within the hockey community on this issue, is behind everything that’s happening now,” Patrick Burke said. “I’m certain that my father and I would not have gotten involved if Brendan hadn’t spoken up. The N.H.L. would not be where we are today without Brendan Burke.”