‘What we’re doing here is saving lives and by saving lives, we’re giving kids hope. Bullies are cowards’
On the ice, they were used to avoiding and dishing out violence, but at a Toronto residence Monday, a group of former NHL players joined together to speak out against it.
The Canadian Safe Schools Network hosted its second annual Night for Change with Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke at the home of hockey fan Mike Wilson. Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and former players Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey were also on hand to lend their support.
“What we’re doing here is saving lives and by saving lives, we’re giving kids hope,” said Wilson. “Bullies are cowards. It’s despicable and it can be dealt with.”
Burke has been raising awareness about bullying and homophobia since his son Brendan, who came out as being gay, died in a car accident in 2010.
Burke said he was never bullied himself because he “would fight at the drop of a hat,” but remembers seeing a mentally disabled boy being victimized at high school.
“They threw his books on the ground and kicked him,” Burke said. “I had to stick up for him and I ended up throwing a kid through a display case window.”
Monday’s event served as a fundraiser for the Canadian Safe Schools Network, a charity that works to reduce youth violence and make schools safer for students. More than 60 guests paid $1,000 each to attend, and a silent auction drew in tens of thousands in donations. The winning bid to play golf with Gretzky was $15,000.
As a player, Gretzky was never known to resort to violence on the ice, and he developed a reputation for his leadership and politeness. He said he’s taught his five children to be the same way.
“I always told my kids: you treat kids with respect,” Gretzky said. “I’m so proud of the fact that if you met my kids, you’d walk away saying they’re very polite, and that’s the proudest thing you can say as a parent.”
Gretzky said he was never bullied as a child, but noted that social media has it easier for more children to be victimized.
“I always say to my kids, life is tougher now with social media,” he said. “It’s hard on parents and it’s hard on kids.”
Burke, who will serve as the grand marshal in the Calgary Pride parade, said he saw some of the negative reaction on social media, even from athletes, when Michael Sam, an openly gay CFL player, was drafted into the NFL.
“There’s stupid people in every workplace,” Burke said. “I saw some of those comments and I feel sorry for people if they’re that stupid.”
Cyberbullying sometimes leads children to commit suicide, and Burke said it breaks his heart every time that happens. There were 41 suicides in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia related to cyberbullying from 2003 to 2012.
“To actually push someone to the point where they take their own lives, I don’t know how these people sleep at night,” he said.
Burke met Wilson at an LBGTQ event. Wilson, a huge hockey fan with a collection of more than 2,000 pieces of memorabilia, approached Burke following a presentation and offered to help the anti-bullying cause.
Wilson said he expected the second annual Night for Change will raise more than $100,000. But he said he would rather not see such events, because that would mean bullying had been dealt with.
Burke has also worked to involve the Flames association in his advocacy. Captain Mark Giordano marched in the Pride parade with him last year.
Other NHL players have also become involved. Last year, Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, former Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis, and Elisha Cuthbert attended the first Night for Change.
“I ask our players to have an accepting workplace, not tolerance,” Burke said. “I hate when people talk about tolerance. You tolerate rain, pedestrians, cats, you don’t tolerate human beings. You accept them.”
That’s what he did when his son told him he was gay. Five years after Brendan’s death, Burke knows his son would be proud of him.
“I don’t think Brendan would accept anything less. Irish families stick together. And the fact that he’s no longer with us doesn’t mean we can’t stick together.”
Article for National Post by Victor Ferreira | June 8, 2015