Tewksbury lauds NHL's new initiative

Former Olympic gold medallist, Mark Tewksbury, revealed he was gay in 1998, making him a...

Former Olympic gold medallist, Mark Tewksbury, revealed he was gay in 1998, making him a groundbreaker as Canada's first openly-gay Olympian.(REUTERS/Christinne Muschi)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:03 PM ET

Mark Tewksbury thinks it might not be that big a deal, now.

"Maybe the joke is going to be on us," said the former Olympic gold medallist, who revealed he was gay in 1998, making him a groundbreaker as Canada's first openly-gay Olympian.

Sadly, as he puts it, he remains pretty much alone in that regard.

"It might be how change happens," he admitted. "Maybe it's just going to be a fizzle and not a big, shocking thing."

He is talking about the day when the first active NHL player comes out, a day Tewksbury said he thinks might be as little as two years away.

Tewksbury is encouraged by the changes going on in hockey, most recently with the launch of the "You Can Play" initiative (youcanplayproject.org) which features public service announcements featuring more than two dozen NHLers expressing their belief, in the words of You Can Play, "locker rooms should be safe and sports venues should be free of homophobia. Athletes should be judged on talent, heart and work ethic, not sexual orientation."

The You Can Play initiative was undertaken by co-founder Patrick Burke in honour of his brother, Brendan, the student manager of the Miami (Ohio) University hockey team who revealed he was gay in 2009. He was killed in a car accident in early 2010.

The Burke family -- Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke is the patriarch -- has been the point of the spear in attacking homophobia in the world of professional hockey. Brendan took a courageous step and the Burke men are working at enlightenment and carrying on Brendan's message.

Tewksbury saw the You Can Play PSAs the other day, just before he returned a call to QMI Agency. The first of the PSAs played Sunday during the first intermission of the Boston Bruins-New York Rangers game, which was televised nationally in the U.S. Players who are participated include Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators, Brian Boyle and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell of the Philadelphia Flyers, Matt Moulson of the New York Islanders, Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks, Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks, Andy Green of the New Jersey Devils, Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Joffrey Lupul and Dion Phaneuf of the Leafs.

"Phenomenal," Tewksbury said when asked what he thought of the message. "It's really incredible. The video is really powerful. It's interesting that it doesn't include the word 'gay.' It's powerful without saying it.

"I was really touched, just blown away."

More players will be part of upcoming PSAs.

Tewksbury, now Canada's chef de mission for the 2012 Olympic Games this summer in London, said he spoke with Patrick Burke a couple of months ago.

"It's a very small world connecting us. It's so great to have a family as influential as the Burkes doing this. You couldn't ask for better," said Tewksbury.

I spoke to Tewksbury just over a year ago for a piece on the first anniversary of Brendan Burke's death. He expressed his frustration then that more gay athletes had not followed in his path. He said he had counselled a couple of gay NHLers, one who had contemplated coming out, but thought better of it.

Tewksbury said it is significant that current players have embraced the message embodied in the You Can Play initiative.

"I'm 15 years into this," said Tewksbury. "I'm the grandpa. I was the first to come out in my world. My time was 1998. To have relevant athletes involved is really amazing. The videos are really powerful."

The You Can Play initiative also caught the attention of comedian/television host Ellen DeGeneres.

"I'm grateful to all the professional athletes participating on the @YouCanPlayTeam," tweeted Degeneres to her 9,765,648 followers on Twitter. "I think I might take up hockey."

Sound like she's joking.

But maybe -- hopefully -- someone out there is saying that very thing, seriously.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @CJ_Stevenson


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