For 17 days in February, the attention of the sporting world will be focused on Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
The spotlight will shine on top athletes from around the globe as they compete for their nations on the ice and in the snow. It also will enlighten millions to social issues in Russia, including a controversial anti-gay law President Vladimir Putin recently signed that bans "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors."
The law has drawn widespread criticism, including from many NHL players who will participate in the hockey tournament. The issue hits particularly close to home to the NHL as it has a partnership with the You Can Play project, which is "dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation."
A large number of players have shown their support for You Can Play in public service announcements urging acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes. In Russia, those PSAs could result in government punishment.
"The laws themselves are absurd," said Patrick Burke, president of You Can Play. "It's idiotic, outdated, hateful legislation that really has no place in anything that resembles a modern society. You're dealing with an idea that is so fundamentally absurd and backward that the outrage over this law and the implementation of it is completely justified."
Some have called for athletes to express their opinions on the law publicly at the Games, while others have suggested the U.S. boycott the Olympics as an ultimate protest. For NHL players heading to Sochi, a boycott is not the answer, and their focus will be on what takes place on the ice.
"A lot of athletes have expressed their thoughts, and they're pretty much all the same regarding those laws in that there's a disrespect for those attitudes and that narrow-mindedness," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "As athletes, we can express our feelings, and we don't have to stand for that train of thought at all. By no means are we standing up for those laws by competing at the Olympics."
Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith was among the players to appear in the original PSA from the You Can Play project and said he won't be using the world stage of the Olympics to make a statement.
"I'm just going to play hockey," Keith said. "They have rules and laws now and I don't necessarily agree with them, but my focus is trying to ... go over there and win hockey games."
Burke is the son of longtime NHL executive Brian Burke and the brother of Brendan Burke, who was a former athlete and manager for Miami University and is considered by many as the first in hockey circles to come out as gay. Brendan Burke died in a car accident just more than a year after coming out and is the inspiration behind You Can Play. Patrick Burke is not on board with calls for a boycott.
"A boycott would be a complete and total waste of time and energy and would do nothing to further the goals," he said. "The gay community in Russia has publicly opposed a boycott. What else do we need to know? That's the end of the discussion for me. They want us there. They think it will help them if we show up."
The presence of Brian Burke in Sochi as well as NHL players who have taken stances on equality in sports can help further the movement even if they choose not to stage public protests.
"I'm a big believer that exposing people to new ideas is often a large part of the battle," Patrick Burke said. "If we do something productive, then I do think there's an opportunity here. The thing I keep focusing on, though, is it's not necessary for athletes to do something. If someone wants to just go to Sochi and play hockey and come home, I'm not going to criticize him."
The Russian law puts the focus on organizations like You Can Play. According to co-founder Burke, the campaign and others like it are seeing acceptance of gay athletes on the rise.
"It has been an absurd amount with the rapid, rapid nature from where this has taken off in terms of our group and other groups and just general acceptance in the sports world," Burke said. "In the last two or three years, you've seen exponential growth in what is being done and what needs to be done."
While You Can Play is involved in other sports organizations, it works most closely in conjunction with the NHL, and Burke has witnessed dramatic improvement in the sport's acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes.
"It has gone from being something people don't talk about a lot to something that has been acknowledged as an issue to something in the NHL where you're in the minority if you don't support LGBT equality in sports," Burke said. "The NHLPA and several players I've spoken to think it's between 90 and 95 percent of the NHL that would happily support an openly gay teammate."
The changes in attitude are significant as Burke said there is no doubt there are gay NHL players.
"Just statistically, we know there has to be an NHL player (who is gay)," Burke said. "In an average year we have about 700 players in the league. Statistically, even if 1 percent of the players are gay, you have seven gay NHL players. Basic numbers tell us there are gay players in the league. And, yes, I do expect that players will feel comfortable to start coming out very soon."
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