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March 01, 2010
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
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March 01, 2010

Man Of His Word

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

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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 Giguère 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 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.

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