I don't usually stay in my seat during intermission at Sabres games. Usually, I'm waiting in line for the bathroom, for food or drinks, or for Sabres swag. However, at a game this season versus the Colorado Avalanche, the stars aligned themselves in just the right way, and I was in my seat when a public service announcement for the You Can Play project aired on the Jumbotron.
You Can Play is a non-profit organization founded by Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke and his son Patrick, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers. Its goal is to promote acceptance of all athletes, regardless of their sexual orientation. The organization was founded in honor of Brian's son Brendan, who was killed in a car accident in 2010 at the age of 21. At the time of his death, he was the closest person to the National Hockey League to come out as openly gay. You Can Play's message is simple: If you can skate, if you can shoot, if you can play, then you can play the game of hockey, regardless of your sexual orientation.
This organization is groundbreaking to the game of hockey. It has already been featured and endorsed prominently by many of the league's teams, including the Sabres, as well as by the NHL itself. You Can Play is the first organization of its kind to cover an entire sport, not just a few teams.
Hockey is admittedly a very masculine sport, but nevertheless, both player and fan reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. The initial PSA featured six very well-known NHL players, including New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and Flyers winger Scott Hartnell. San Jose Sharks center Tommy Wingels serves on You Can Play's board of directors.
Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville is featured in a spot with the Bruins' Zdeno Chara, declaring his support for the project and for LGBT athletes. Yet another video features Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos and Florida's Brian Campbell. As many as 40 other NHL players will soon be featured in the project's videos, and that number seems to only be increasing.
And why shouldn't it be? It seems like every season we hear about how another player from another sport used a homophobic slur "in the heat of the moment." How many openly gay athletes can you name in professional sports? Anyone? I didn't think so. The odds that there are closeted hockey players are pretty high, but until now, they haven't dared to make that public. You Can Play has made it abundantly clear that the vast majority of players and fans would proudly support an openly gay athlete.
I've never met Pominville, but if and when I do, the first words out of my mouth will be a huge "thank you." As an openly gay person, an avid hockey fan and an amateur hockey player, his simple words hit home. I'm grateful to all of the players and fans who give their support to You Can Play, and I'm very proud that the game I love, about as much as one man can love a game, has taken this initiative.
The pucks of change are careening toward the back of the NHL's net with more force than a Bobby Hull slap shot. In other words, this campaign is a big deal.
If you would like to check out the website for the You Can Play campaign, visit youcanplayproject.org.
MacKintosh Barker, a journalism major, just completed his junior year at Buffalo State College.