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If you're gay but can skate, handle the puck and stand up for your teammates, come on out.

A fantasy of a forward-thinking hockey future or a reality close at hand? It depends whom you ask.

The NHL is still waiting for its first openly gay lodge member, either active or emeritus. There's never been a gay player come out during his career in any of the other three major North American team sports, either, and only a handful in retirement.

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But resistance seems to be softening in the hockey world, at least, based on a reading of the pulse in the wake of Toronto Maple Leafs president Brian Burke's strident support for his son's decision to come out of the closet.

Taboos just aren't what they used to be.

"Players now have a broader view," said Dave King, an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes and one of the most respected minds in hockey. "They're people, not just hockey players, and they understand that everybody has a little different view of life. ... Guys are now intelligent enough, smart enough and worldly enough to realize that there are gays in every profession. It's the reality of the world we live in - and hockey is a part of life."

Hockey and professional sports generally have been considered one of the last bastions of homophobia.

It's a hyper-masculinized world where gay slurs fill the air, conformity is required and career prospects are so fragile that everyone goes along to get along.

Burke's son, Brendan, a former goalie and now the student manager with the Miami University (Ohio) men's hockey team, said it was the challenge of fitting into the testosterone-charged atmosphere of his high-school hockey team that caused him to quit playing, lying to his parents that he simply had lost interest.

But then the son of one of the most macho men in hockey decided to come out in an article published last Tuesday on and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Is hockey less homophobic than people think?

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"Definitely. Just from the way my dad and a bunch of other hockey people have supported me and the way Miami has, too," Brendan said in an interview broadcast during the first-period intermission of the Toronto Maple Leafs-Tampa Bay Lightning game on TSN last night.

"Things like gay slurs, I think once players realize there could be a gay person next to them or a gay person around them they stop using them. It's not that they're homophobic, it's just that they don't think about what the consequences for a gay person next to them might be."

Is the NHL ready for its first openly gay coach, player or team executive?

"Well, the Toronto Maple Leafs are," Brian said in the same interview. "I judge people on their talent, on their merits and what they bring to their position, not their lifestyle, not their choices. They're certainly welcome in our organization and I'd have to guess we're not alone."

Some insiders are convinced it's a matter of when, not if, an active player declares his sexual preference and that when he does he may well be greeted with some combination of praise, raised eyebrows and shrugs of indifference.

"I definitely think there's still a huge barrier," said Adrian Aucoin, a 15-year NHL veteran who has played on six teams. "[But]do I think guys would have a huge problem if it happened? Probably not. ... Most hockey players are middle-class guys, who were brought up the right way. Most of the guys I've played with are really good people and would accept anybody for who they are."

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Some experts argue that being the first openly gay player could create a valuable niche for themselves.

"Eventually some 23-year-old kid is going to be smart and realize, 'hey, I've been up and down in the minors and I'm about to get cut, [but]if I come out of the closet I'm going to have one hell of a career,' " said Eric Anderson, a U.S. sociologist at the University of Bath in England, and author of In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity. " 'I'm going to be on Oprah, I'm going to have book deals, movie deals etc.' So in that aspect, whoever comes out first will be able to milk [it]for the media."

The most recent example of a professional athlete to come out in the major North American sports is former NBA journeyman John Amaechi, who wrote a book, Man in the Middle, in 2007 about his experience as a closeted professional athlete. He said pragmatism remains one of the primary obstacles to a gay player, coach or official coming out of the closet in mid-career.

"As a gay athlete what is the upside - apart from purely the philanthropic side of things - for coming out?" he said. "There are a lot of above-average NBA players out there and they'll get the next one because he's not gay, it's that simple."

But the way Brian Burke has handled the issue - "I stand beside him with an axe" - can only help move the needle to the point where sexual orientation in professional team sports is an afterthought, not a story.

With a report from Eric Duhatschek

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