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By Dan Woog
Last November, the 21-year-old manager of a college hockey team came out as gay. Two months later, he was killed in an automobile accident.
The hockey world may never be the same.
It’s not often that a student manager earns headlines by coming out, but Brendan Burke was no ordinary young man. His father was Brian Burke – one of the biggest names in the sport. A former star at Providence College, Brian used his law degree to represent pro hockey players. He then moved up the pro ladder: general manager of the Hartford Whalers; president of the Vancouver Canucks; executive VP and GM of the Stanley Cup-winning Anaheim Ducks; GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs; GM of the U.S. Olympic hockey team. In 2008, he received the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the U.S.
Brendan, meanwhile, quit playing hockey in prep school. He was afraid someone would learn he was gay. But he loved the sport, and at Miami University in Ohio he reveled in serving as student manager. He analyzed scouting tapes, kept goalie statistics and prepared highlight videos. The Miami team was good – reaching the Frozen Four, hockey’s version of NCAA basketball’s Final Four – and Brendan was as much a part of the success as anyone.
The RedHawks were tight. When Brian came out – first to teammates, then his coaches – no one cared. More than that, they were over-the-top supportive. Head coach Enrico Blasi called him “a blessing…a great student and an even better person.”
Brendan had already come out to his family: sisters Katie and Molly, brother Patrick, mother Kerry, and finally his dad and stepmother. His father – a big, gruff, macho hockey man through and through — had never suspected. But he hugged his son and said, “We still love you. This won’t change a thing.”
Coming out is intensely personal, for everyone. But the Burke name is big, and last fall Brendan decided to share his story in the most public of ways: on ESPN. On the vaunted sports network’s Web site, John Buccigross wrote an eloquent, graceful and detailed story about Brendan’s continuing journey as a gay man in the often-coarse world of hockey.
“I would prefer Brendan hadn’t decided to discuss this issue in this very public manner,” Brian said. “There will be a great deal of reaction, and I fear a large portion will be negative. But this takes guts, and I admire Brendan greatly, and happily march arm in arm with him on this.”
Brian Burke added: “There are gay men in professional hockey. We would be fools to think otherwise. And it’s sad that they feel the need to conceal this. I understand why they do so, however.
“Can a gay man advance in professional hockey? He can if he works for the Toronto Maple Leafs! Or for Miami University hockey. And I am certain these two organizations are not alone here.
“I wish this burden would fall on someone else’s shoulders, not Brendan’s. Pioneers are often misunderstood and mistrusted. But since he wishes to blaze this trail, I stand beside him with an axe! I simply could not be more proud of Brendan than I am, and I love him as much as I admire him.”
The story ended on an upbeat note. Brendan returned to his all-boys high school, to talk about growing up gay. He earned a standing ovation from “200 kids who spend half their time insulting anyone different than them,” said his brother Patrick.
The ESPN story’s final anecdote described an incident last summer. His father called Brendan and said, “Hey, Toronto Pride is this weekend. You should fly up.” Together, they watched the gay pride parade.
Reaction to the posting was swift. Much was positive; some was not. But the Burkes were already moving on. Brian was preparing the U.S. team for the Olympics; Brendan looked ahead to law school. He wanted to work in politics or hockey management, and a law degree was important for both.
On Feb. 5, while driving back from Michigan State’s law school, Brendan’s Jeep Grand Cherokee was broadsided by a truck on a snowy Indiana road. He and a friend were both killed.
Nearly 1,000 people attended Brendan’s funeral in suburban Boston. The Maple Leafs were there, in suits and ties. So was the Miami University team, wearing their hockey jerseys. There too were the movers and shakers of the hockey world: general managers, coaches, former stars like Mark Messier, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Sitting together in grief, they heard Brendan eulogized as “caring, compassionate and courageous.”
For the rest of their hockey lives, one hopes, whenever they hear “courage,” they will think of Brendan: their good friend Brian Burke’s talented, smart, beloved gay son.