This is not the conclusion to a story. As a matter of fact, this is the beginning of an intricate chapter in history. Patrick Burke set out in his brother Brendan’s footsteps to change the world, and with the help of a vast cast of characters, he will do just that. Over two previous articles, I have introduced you to a movement known as the You Can Play Project, which stands on the brink of changing the face of sports forever. The brothers Burke; who together, although separated by the tragedy of young death, stand strong in the face of adversity and challenge the way we speak to, act towards, and interact with one another. In an effort to make locker rooms safe for everyone regardless of sexual orientation, a group of people have come into play to create a project with a sincere and straightforward message; If you can play, you can play.
Part three of this series, is an interview with a San Jose Shark and friend to the Burke family; A rookie player from Illinois with a whole lot of heart and strength in his soft-spoken words and even keeled demeanor. It was my distinct honor and pleasure to interview Tommy Wingels, a nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy for his work with the You Can Play Project, on a breezy Friday afternoon from my office in Monterey county, far removed from the locker rooms we were speaking about, but deeply connected to the stories of those I have come to respect and admire as I have written about the You Can Play Project in recent weeks. So fans, supporters, players, and everyone in between, sit back and check out what the cool headed Wingels had to say.
We all have friends we hold in high places; friends we would do anything for. But what makes these friends so special to us? Obviously Brendan Burke was someone Tommy Wingels held in such high regard, so I asked him, what was it about Brendan that made him so special, what about him inspired Tommy to take on a project of this magnitude? Why, after his death, was Tommy so “relentless” according to Patrick Burke, in preserving Brendan’s message and legacy? Tommy had this to say of his late friend and inspiration:
“He and I built a pretty special bond, he was involved in our hockey program and when you get to know someone, you know their personal goals in life, as a person in general, and then you see how motivated and driven they are. You know, you really want to help them out, and when he was part of our team I really did what I could to help him feel comfortable and made sure that the team felt the same way. Unfortunately he passed and that really made it my goal to try bring that into hockey in general and when the Burke’s said they were going to come up with this project, I never thought it would happen this quickly but then the Burke’s said the support was there…and what it has already done for the sport…Ya know, Brendan was so driven and a pioneer in doing all of this that I would have helped him in any way had he still been around and now that he’s not I look to continue this dream.”
I paused for a moment and looked at the sheet of questions I had prepared for Tommy and quickly realized that I was in no way prepared to do justice to the man Tommy had just spoken about, or this project for that matter, and made a last minute decision to rearrange my questions and let the conversation go where it would. Whether or not Tommy sensed my sudden shift from confident reporter into an awestruck bystander I don’t know, but I proceeded with the next question I felt relevant to the guy on the other end of the line.
Had you not known Brendan do you believe you would have gotten involved in a project of this nature?
“You know that’s tough, I think my beliefs with homophobia in sports haven’t changed regardless, I really think that people should be judged by their talent and talent alone and nothing else should matter…do I think I would have come to this as quickly as I had, no. I think being there with Brendan and seeing him go through it and the support he had and his desire to really eliminate this in sports sped up my process and I think guys in the NHL and the hockey community working together will make this so that when a gay athlete does come out its no longer a story.”
Which leads me into my next question, have you personally witnessed any episodes of homophobic behavior in a locker room that has really made you stop and say to yourself “Wow, we really need to do something to stop this.”?
“I really haven’t, I think it’s well known in sports that its sort of the macho, alpha male is the one who plays it, and I think that’s a bad stereotype. I can’t recall any specific instance where I said to myself “Wow this needs to change” I think there’s homophobia, people saying words in the locker room, not just in hockey but in all sports, not with the intention of its true meaning but its just a casual word in our vocabulary which is something we need to eliminate, but other than that I haven’t seen much but we need to make it so that it’s a safe environment for everyone.”
So here’s this guy right, young, straight out of college and playing the up down game in the AHL/NHL system. If you aren’t familiar with the way hockey works, it can be a real crap shoot sometimes…you can go from living the dream in the show to huge cuts in pay as you fly back across country. Some guys look at losing contracts and ending up in other leagues entirely like the ECHL. If I was a rookie you’d better believe I’d be wary of investing my money in anything, let alone an untested, potentially controversial project. Since my mind thinks like that, I wondered if Tommy’s did as well, and threw it out there at him, was he apprehensive about this?
His response not only made sense, but also made me stop for a moment and reflect on how truly incredible this situation is.
“No, it wasn’t at all (scary). It was something important to me, and it was something that I was willing to put in money but more importantly I think the time and the effort along with some of the other people. Money only means so much and I think that has so much more meaning so I was willing to put in what I could and I will continue to do that as we move forward here.”
So now that I had established with Tommy he wasn’t worried about losing anything financially or sacrificing time…I was curious, was he at all nervous as such a new face to the NHL to bring this message to the seasoned vets of the hockey system or was this a situation where he was just talking to the boys, sharing his point of view?
“Yeah, I was a bit nervous at first, this is my rookie year in the league pretty much and there are guys who have been in the league much longer and seen more of the culture and the game than I have. But ya know I think from my point of view it was something our team was ready for and the league was ready for, it’s something that I talked to a few players about personally before I went and talked to more players about it and went public with it and I think that was important. The support I’ve gotten from my teammates has been unbelievable, guys reaching out to try to help out and be involved, so I can’t thank them enough for that, and I think awareness is a huge thing amongst our team, amongst our fans, and amongst the hockey community so that’s something we’re looking to build on.”
Tommy continued on the same topic, commenting on the roles of hockey players with You Can Play, saying:
“I think its very beneficial having players in these locker rooms reporting back to Patrick and the entire board there, I think we’re in the process now of getting more people involved, creating the play book for how to handle certain situations as well as creating some speaking events this summer. So that’s what we have going on right now that you’ll see more and more of, with players from around the league and the Sharks taking part in.”
This segued nicely into my next question for Wingels, as to how they planned on keeping the focus on You Can Play during the off season and how they plan on really getting it into youth sports:
“Those are the discussions we’re having right now, how we can have an effect on youth hockey, high school hockey, college hockey, and junior hockey. This project is not only aimed at the NHL but hockey in general and I think that’s why it’s going to have such a big effect. I’ve told Patrick (Burke) I’m willing to do whatever, whether its put money in, spend time, speak to people, speak to teams, speak to young adults who have questions about it, or other guys around the league who have questions about it…that’s something I’m willing to do and um I’m really up for anything.”
What kind of an interview would this be for Blades of Teal if I didn’t bring up the awesome San Jose Sharks Fans and the “If You Can Cheer” PSA video they made in support of You Can Play? So after explaining to Tommy my position on how I was convinced we have the greatest fans in the league I asked if he had seen the video and how he felt about the level of support from the fan base in San Jose…and for all of you who worked so hard on it…
“I did see that video, and I was very impressed. I think that’s what it’s going to take, it’s going to take people really going with this and running with it. Their willingness to help raise awareness, and the fans in the bay area has been unbelievable! This is a great area where we can be very impactful and to see the fans helping out is very appreciated and I think that’s something, a relationship that I and some of the guys can build with fans, that we can sort of team up and do something going forward here.”
Now, not to bring in the current state of affairs with team teal, but let’s be honest, its been a rough go recently for the boys and some fans have been voicing concerns that there has been an overall lack of focus from the team. If you saw Tommy play on Saturday night against Dallas, you already know he is obviously incredibly focused on the game at hand and has his priorities straight…but following the two road trip losses which occurred in the days leading up to this interview…I felt inclined to ask if Tommy felt at all distracted by his role with You Can Play at such a pivotal time in the season.
“No, they don’t interfere with each other at all. We have a good thing here where you go to the rink and do your business there and you try to keep away from the rink when you’re not there…you think about certain things but you have that time away from the rink to really re-juice and refocus for the next day, and that gives me a good opportunity to work on things like this project.”
Where does Tommy really see You Can Play going from here? I personally see You Can Play going viral, envisioning it in my head at the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament, which I mentioned to Tommy, causing him to chuckle momentarily. I mean come on, you know you’ve made it big once you’ve got a presence at that tourney…which isn’t even sarcasm, ask anyone from Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, the Dakotas, and parts of Canada; regardless, I digress. Where does Wingels see this project spreading?
“I think long term goals we want this project to no longer exist. We want this sport to be accepting for who people are and not need a project like this to promote awareness. That is probably years away but we’re going to do what we can up until then to really create a safe environment and eliminate that casual homophobia in the sport. I think as we’ve seen more teams across the league, across junior teams, college teams, are helping out and that’s what’s really going to start as newer players come into the leagues, they’ll have seen these ads and campaigns and that will really help out and change the culture.”
So we know how the teams are helping, but how can the hockey community and fans help out? I asked Tommy and his response was a simple one:
“I would just ask them to help raise awareness.”
Having spoken with multiple members of the You Can Play Project at this point, I can speak confidently when I say that this is an incredible team of people. I wondered how Tommy felt to be working with such a talented and incredible crew:
“It’s a humbling honor to be a part of this advisory board. You know I’ve only met a few of the people on it and that is something I would like to uh, meet the rest of them moving forward here into the summer but some of the guys, Patrick and Glenn, and Brian have put in so much work. The credit goes to them for what they’ve done, and then you have the coaches and John Buccigross from ESPN and its just a great diverse group of people who can really add value to what we’re trying to do here from different angles. We’re all sort of working off of each other and adding and trying to make this project the best we can.”
As a follow on comment to Tommy I mentioned Twitter which he admittedly stated that he “Needs to get more active on,” so no fear Sharks loyal, maybe Mr. Wingels will not only grace us with more amazing work for the betterment of the sport and the sporting world we love so much, but with a couple more tweets here and there. I cannot stress to you how challenging this project is, and continued awareness will be essential to keeping You Can Play alive and well until it will no longer be needed.
Please visit www.youcanplayproject.org to find out more about the project, the people involved, and the ways that you can help! You can also follow the project on twitter by following @YouCanPlayTeam! Remember that this is an effort sustained by everyone in the hockey community, and for your involvement so far, and for all I know you will do Sharks fans, I would like to extend my own personal thanks and gratitude. The message is clear, and to quote Tommy:
“If You Can Play, You Can Play.”
~ALH (Amy Gist)
Blades of Teal ~ The Final Word on Sharks Hockey.
Topics: AHL, Andy Miele, Blades Of Teal, Brian Burke, ECHL, Ice Hockey, John Buccigross, NHL, Patrick Burke, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Tommy Wingels, Toronto Maple Leafs, Worcester Sharks, You Can Play Project