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A 21st Century Hockey Hero... Brendan Burke

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Brian Burke could be riding the float for a Maple Leafs Stanley Cup parade down Yonge Street... heck, both his goalies could be injured late in game seven and he could be forced to lace on his skates and take over as netminder just like Lester Patrick, and in terms of impossible hockey achievements he'd still rank second in his family.

His late son, Brendan, accomplished something more implausible than bringing the Cup back to Toronto, flying the Jets home to Winnipeg, or Don Cherry making it through a segment of Coach's Corner without mentioning anything other than hockey. Brendan Burke inspired his brother Patrick (a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers) and their father Brian to convince hockey stars to speak out against homophobia in a sport where simply being Swedish was once enough to provoke jokes about a player's sexuality. Mike Milbury complained about the dangers of "pansification"and Don Cherry used to get laughs by affecting a stereotypical homothexual lisp.

Brendan Burke publicly talked about the challenges of being a gay hockey player in November 2009 when he was managing the hockey team at Ohio's Miami University. Three months later he died in a car accident.

The following year defenseman Brent Sopel honoured Brendan's memory by taking the Stanley Cup to Chicago's Gay Pride Parade.

Last week the Burke family launched the You Can Play Project in Brendan's memory and some of the NHL's biggest stars recorded a Public Service Announcement aimed at getting homophobia out of hockey.

It's almost impossible to imagine this happening in the NHL a decade ago -- although if you can imagine it, maybe you can imagine that it would have made retired Flames superstar Theo Fleury less likely to stay silent when his former junior team-mate Sheldon Kennedy spoke out about their sexually abusive coach, Graham James.

Kennedy titled his biography, Why I Didn't Say Anything and the answer he repeated over and over in his book is that James, "was constantly threatening to tell people that I was gay." Kennedy believed that if he ever went public about being abused, "the other players would call me gay and shun me, my hockey career would be finished."

The message from the Burke family is, "if you can play, you can play" -- which seems a whole lot more adult than, say, "don't ask, don't tell." And if it's a message macho hockey players are willing to share, maybe other pro sports will pick up the same pink banner.

For more on Brendan Burke check out these stories at ESPN and The Fifth Estate.

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