The University of Connecticut hockey program grabbed headlines earlier in the summer when it was announced that the Huskies would be joining Hockey East in 2014-15. It will be a significant move for the program, going from relative anonymity in Atlantic Hockey to one of college hockey’s most prestigious conferences. However, before that big announcement was made, the UConn players stepped up in a different, but no less significant way.
By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the You Can Play Project, which has gained the support of the National Hockey League and has involved many of its biggest stars. The organization founded by, among others, Patrick Burke, a Philadelphia Flyers pro scout and son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, promotes respect and equality for all athletes, regardless of sexual orientation.
You Can Play’s highly successful series of filmed public service announcement has included many NHL superstars and has been produced by some of the best in the business like HBO. Many of the videos have been put together directly by the You Can Play Project.
However, early in the organization’s existence came a video that was unsolicited, but more than welcome.
Though You Can Play had planned on, and has since started, rolling out videos featuring college hockey teams, the players at UConn took it upon themselves to make a statement in support of You Can Play’s aims.
“Will approached us one day and asked us if we’d like to do something like this,” Ambrosie recalled. “A bunch of leaders on the team got together, we talked it over and we thought everyone would be behind it.”
The team leadership was right.
“It was pretty positive,” said soon-to-be senior goaltender Garrett Bartus of his and teammates’ reactions after hearing Ambrosie’s proposal. “We knew it was for a good cause and everybody was pretty positive about it. It’s a big issue in this day and age.”
UConn’s leadership group even decided to become the first players to publicly take You Can Play’s captain’s challenge.
Before filming, the players brought the idea to head coach Bruce Marshall, who was receptive, but wanted to be sure the players were prepared to make such a strong statement.
“Coach said you’ve gotta be behind it 100 percent, because it’s a pretty huge topic and we said we were,” Bartus explained.
With a production crew from the school, the players gathered and filmed their PSAs before uploading the videos for all to see, including Patrick Burke.
“When a whole team stands up to do something like this, that’s very important,” Burke told the AP. “For a young gay hockey player, who is looking for a place to play hockey, he knows that UConn is an option, that he will be safe at UConn, that he will be accepted at UConn.”
Moran pointed to one of the main inspirations behind the entire You Can Play Project as a reason he wanted to see UConn get involved.
“I thought it was really important for You Can Play to return to where it basically started in college hockey,” said Moran in an email.
Moran is referring to Brendan Burke, Patrick’s younger brother and Brian’s son, who died tragically in February of 2010, mere months after announcing publicly that he was gay. Brendan was a student manager for the Miami University hockey team. Before going public, he came out to the team staff and players and was immediately greeted with acceptance. Nothing had changed outside of the Miami players being more cognizant of the words that get thrown around the locker room.
It was Burke’s courage and Miami’s acceptance of him that inspired many and showed that there is a place for openly gay people in sports. Though Brendan has passed on, his encouraging message lives on through You Can Play.
Two of Miami’s star players from the team Brendan worked with, Andy Miele and Tommy Wingels, and current head coach Enrico Blasi sit on You Can Play’s board now. Last year’s RedHawk squad shot a video that has yet to be released.
“I think for the players on the [UConn] team, like Sean and Garrett, who have been very public in their support, it took a lot of courage to do that,” said Moran. “It’s reminiscent of the kind of courage Brendan Burke showed when he started this thing and I think he’d be proud.”
Both players said they were excited to have gotten such positive feedback from people all over, but Ambrosie and his teammates didn’t just want to pay lip service to such an important cause.
“Honestly, if somebody’s going to help you out and somebody’s gonna help you win a championship, then they have as much right as any other person to be on the team,” said the Moorhead, Minn., native. “We’re just looking for players that can contribute. It doesn’t matter your sexuality, we just want to win hockey games.”
Ambrosie said he’s received numerous emails from strangers expressing gratitude and support, but as can be expected when touching on a sometimes controversial topic, there has been some negativity.
“Obviously you’re going to get a few negative comments, but I’m pretty excited about what we did,” he said.
One such comment came via Peter Wolfgang, president of the Family Institute of Connecticut Action, who expressed concern about the use of the word “homophobic” in the video.
“It’s a very loaded political term,” Wolfgang told the AP. “If we’re going to be against bullying, then we ought to be against all forms of bullying and not just the kind that get us a pat on the back from politically correct elites. I would hope that people that have traditional beliefs, traditional faiths that they would not be bullied for holding views about morality or the definition of marriage.”
Bartus, who said he didn’t see that quote, believes the message of equality extends beyond the LBGT community.
“I think [You Can Play] reaches out to all [people],” he said. “It shouldn’t matter about anything else. All that matters is that you come to the rink, and if you can play, obviously you can play. That’s the whole idea behind it. If you’re going to help your team win and succeed, that’s all that should matter.”
UConn is certainly going to need all the fire power it can get as it enters Hockey East in two years.
While Ambrosie and Bartus, both heading into their final college campaigns, will be gone when the team makes the jump to Hockey East, both expressed excitement for the program’s future.
“The program has been on the upswing,” said Bartus, who might be the best netminder in the UConn hockey history. “We’ve been getting better every year. Hockey East is the best conference in the nation. Going up against BC, BU, Maine and all those schools, Hockey East probably has five or six teams in the Top 20 at any time. It’s really good for the program and it’s really cool to be part of the turnaround here.”
“I think it’s going to be great for the school and we’re going to get a lot more fans,” said Ambrosie, who heads into his senior season with 73 career points under his belt. “I think hockey at Connecticut is going to be a lot bigger thing now.”
UConn’s bandwagon is sure to fill in the coming years, but by stepping up in support of all athletes, regardless of sexual orientation, hockey at Connecticut already looks pretty big.