Barely a week after his son Brendan died in a car crash, Maple Leafs G.M. Brian Burke was in Vancouver keeping his commitment to the U.S. team he forged—and vowing to champion gay rights in Brendan's memory
This is an article from the March 1, 2010 issue
The thrumming rain is a dreary counterpoint to the rainbow banners on the lampposts at the corner of Davie and Bute in the West End, heart of Vancouver's gay village. Steps away, at the entrance to Pride House, on the eve of the Winter Olympics' opening ceremonies, there is an inescapable truth: The heavens do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. When it rains, everyone gets wet.
Pride House is not like Molson Canadian Hockey House or Irish House or Casa Italia or any of the party houses that sprout during the Olympic fortnight to promote a brand or a nation. Pride House is an LGBT welcome center, and the building looks as if it would fit comfortably on the campus of a modestly funded state college. The ribbon-cutting ceremony was just held an hour earlier. Up a flight of stairs is a medical clinic, a TV room and an alcove with a long table on which there are glasses of white wine and plates of tired cold cuts.
"I love the man's attitude," Trevor MacNeil is saying. MacNeil is a hockey guy, a forward on the Cutting Edges, a team of gay players in a Vancouver adult league. "For Brian Burke to say, Yes, I drive a truck and I hunt, but Brendan's my son and I love him no matter what—well, for me that was shocking and great. It gives you a warm feeling knowing someone like him can be so affirmative. He's trying to make being gay in sports a nonissue. When I heard about his son's death and found links to some articles, that's when I learned Brendan had come out. I didn't realize Brendan was born in Vancouver."
So because Burke is general manager of Team USA, MacNeil might cheer for the Americans? "Hell, no," he says. "It's still Canada all the way. Brendan was Canadian."
There is nothing small in Brian Burke's world. He does not use small words. He does not say the pressure on Team Canada at the Olympics is intense; he says it is "glacial, unremitting, unrelenting." He does not say that he prefers his NHL teams—over the last 18 years he has been the G.M. in Hartford, Vancouver, Anaheim and now Toronto—to be tough or even robust; they must have the "proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence." In macho throwdowns, Burke's thesaurus is bigger than your thesaurus.
He does not make small trades. While other G.M.'s tinker, swapping second-round draft choices for third-line rent-a-centers, Burke swings deals that bring 24-year-old franchise defenseman Dion Phaneuf and $7 million goaltender Jean-Sébastien Gigu√®re to the Maple Leafs.
Burke does not have spats. He has epic Shakespearean feuds. In 2007, when Edmonton G.M. Kevin Lowe extended an offer sheet to winger Dustin Penner, a restricted free agent on Burke's Stanley Cup--champion team in Anaheim, Burke lambasted the move and said, "If I had run my team into the sewer like [Lowe did], I wouldn't throw a grenade at the other 29 teams."
And now Burke's grief matches the enormity of everything else in his life. On snow-slicked U.S. Highway 35 in Indiana, his 21-year-old son, Brendan, student manager of the top-ranked Miami (Ohio) hockey team, died in a car accident on Friday, Feb. 5. There are an average of 94 traffic fatalities in the U.S. every day, and Brendan and his friend Mark Reedy, 18, were only two of them. Brendan's death became a sports story not only because of who his father is but also because of what Brendan symbolized.
Three months earlier he had come out publicly, though his dad had known about his homosexuality for two years. In an espn.com story and a subsequent father-and-son TV interview, Brian—a hockey carnivore who embraces physical play and fighting; a 6'2", 240-pound fishing, hunting, Harley-riding, truck-driving, tobacco-chewing father of six who says he is "a poster boy for straight people if you look at all the macho measuring sticks"—embraced Brendan, a gay-rights advocate, for all the world to see.
Now Brian placed his hand on his dead son's chest and kept it there for the two-hour flight in the air ambulance that took Brendan's body from Ohio to Massachusetts, to his mother, Kerry—Brian's first wife—and his five brothers and sisters. The wake was held on Feb. 8, in Canton, southwest of Boston. The funeral the next day at St. John the Evangelist was "surreal in its sorrow, overwhelming in its respect," says Ned Colletti, the Dodgers G.M., who sat in the church with Devils president Lou Lamoriello, Brian Burke's old coach at Providence College. Ten priests celebrated the Mass, another reminder that for Brian Burke, nothing is small in life, or death.
Four days later Burke arrives in the city where, as president and G.M. of the Canucks from 1998 through 2004, he built a perennial playoff team. The Olympics are an obligation, not an option, to the 54-year-old. As Team USA practices in a frigid community arena, Burke says, "Lincoln lost a son in the White House. So did Jefferson Davis in the Confederacy. They didn't go home. They finished the job. USA Hockey didn't ask me to do this on the basis of, Will you do this if your personal life allows it?"
Burke, a Civil War buff, does not mean to sound self-aggrandizing by comparing his situation with Lincoln's and Davis's. He just does. "There's not a shortage of ego to the man," says Mike Milbury, a former NHL player, coach and G.M., and Burke's friend of three decades. "I think he wants to have a particular image, and he works at that image. He wants to be a world-class executive. He wants to be in the Hall of Fame. He works extraordinarily hard, in every aspect of his life. For years he was flying coast-to-coast every other weekend to see his kids. And he wasn't always making $3 million a year." Once Burke skipped a Canucks playoff game because it was his weekend with the four children from his first marriage. He made time for them—and on a life-changing Friday in February, that gave him a bit of solace.
A policeman walks past and drops a VANCOUVER POLICE cap on the bench next to Burke, who worked with the department when he lived in the city. "Thanks for taking care of us when you were here," the officer says. In the Burke canon of he-man hockey there always is payback. Now it comes in a different form, from a cop he had never met.
Burke has cried only twice this day, but it is early, a little after two o'clock. This is the first time he has smiled.
Sure, Burke took care of the cops in Vancouver. He takes care of almost everyone. That's something Joan and Bill Burke taught their 10 children. Brian, the fourth, began donating blood, with his parents' permission, at 16. He taught reading to inner-city kids. One rule at his four NHL stops has been that players must do community work.
"His personal touches," Milbury says, "are somewhat legendary." Burke has flown to the funerals of children of old college teammates. With the Dodgers clubhouse in tatters near the end of the 2007 season, he drove to Manhattan Beach at 5:30 one morning to lend a sympathetic ear. Burke texts, but at a time when even e-mail seems so 20th century, he sends handwritten notes—of congratulation, of commiseration. After a hockey writer had quadruple bypass surgery in 2002, Burke sent him a bookstore gift certificate with the note, "I wasn't aware sportswriters had hearts."
There are other things Burke says he didn't know. Like this: In times of sob-till-your-chest-hurts tragedy, tissues do not hold up. Go with paper towels.
A few days after Brendan came out to his father, in late December 2007, Brian told him, "You know the best part? I don't have to take anything back." Burke says he never told his children there was anything wrong with homosexuality. But when he really rummages through his memory, he concedes there are smudges on his otherwise clean conscience. When he played in the American Hockey League in the late 1970s—he was a stay-at-home defenseman whose skills fast-tracked him to Harvard Law School—he spoke in the lingua franca of the locker room. "Yeah, I used those slurs," he says. "I'm embarrassed by it. It was an accepted part of the [hockey] culture, and it still is. But not on my teams. It's a big part of trash talking, and that's got to change."
After Brendan publicly revealed his sexual preference, Brian was flooded with requests to do advocacy work on behalf of gays. He told the groups that while he supported his son, he had other causes: land conservation, blood donation and children's literacy. He didn't want to dilute that work. This, too, changed on that Friday in February. Brendan's causes are Brian's now. He will do a public-service announcement aimed at eliminating the bullying of gay children. And he plans to march in the Toronto Pride Parade. "I'd promised him I would march with him," says Burke, who briefly left the Olympics last Friday to attend a memorial service for Brendan at Miami of Ohio. "He won't be there, but I will."
There is one more thing he owes his son.
Remember Kevin Lowe, the Oilers executive Burke eviscerated—and who a year later fired back by calling Burke "a moron" and accusing him of destroying the Canucks before leaving to run Anaheim? "Last summer I said something [nasty] about Kevin Lowe, and Brendan asked, 'How can you stay mad at someone?'" Burke says. "I said, 'It's easy.' He said, 'No, it's not. He used to be your friend. It doesn't make sense. I don't approve.'"
When Lowe, now the Oilers' president, learned of Brendan's passing, he e-mailed Brian, referring to their shattered relationship while offering his sympathies. Burke immediately called Edmonton G.M. Steve Tambellini, with whom he had worked in Vancouver, and asked him to tell Lowe that this is one broken fence he wants to mend.
And so Burke and Lowe began the healing process last week at Canada Hockey Place. In their best moments, the Olympics can be as much about peace and friendship as about rivalries. Five nights before the U.S. beat Canada 5--3, the grieving father walked over to Lowe, a Team Canada executive, and offered his hand. Burke says an awkward sort of half man-hug accompanied the handshake. The Olympics really can be as much about peace and friendship as about medals.
"Again, that's Brendan breaking down another wall," Burke says. "That's what he does." Burke reaches for a paper towel.