But now the combative G.M. had taken the biggest hit of his life. Lying on the side of the road was his 21-year-old son, who had stunned the hockey world three months earlier when he’d come out as the first openly gay man closely connected to the NHL. Listening to the sheriff’s voice down the line, Burke could see Brendan in the snow that was still falling, surrounded by strangers who didn’t know a thing about him. He must be so cold, Burke thought, and he could see the furrow in his brow that Brendan always got when he was worried. He could see the paramedics give up and step away, and already ticking in the background were those ten seconds of knee-buckling fear.
Brian Burke has been taking homophobia since then.
Within weeks of Brendan’s death, gay and lesbian advocates were reaching out directly for some of Brian Burke’s candlepower. It felt impossible to say no, but inside Burke was floundering. "It’s a comfort level," he says. "Before all of this, it was just a circle that I didn’t move in. I didn’t have any gay friends. I still don’t, technically. It’s not that I don’t like it, but it’s new territory, a learning process. I’m 55 years old. I’ve spent a lifetime acquiring habits. Before I went to the Pride Parade I was thinking, ‘Good Lord, I’m a tough Irish Catholic hockey player with six kids. I drive a truck, chew tobacco. I hunt. I kill things.’"
Last May, just three months after Brendan’s death, Burke got an e-mail from Jack Keilty, a senior at Royal St. George’s College, a private boys’ school in Toronto. Back in the fall, Jack had founded the gay-straight alliance at his school. There were only two members in the alliance (three if you count the earnest female guidance counselor): Jack, who is straight, and Andrew Mok, a junior at the time and the only openly gay student at RSGC. Despite its single-digit membership, Jack was determined to push the gay-straight alliance forward before he graduated. His first idea was to get Elton John to come to the school, but when that didn’t pan out, his father suggested Brian Burke. In his e-mail, Jack told Burke that he’d followed his son’s story and admired his bravery. He asked Burke if he’d come to the school and talk about Brendan. Burke fired back a one-line e-mail within minutes: "You name the time and the place and I’ll be there."
The school set up a video camera in the front corner of the chapel to record Burke’s speech. It’s a beautiful church with vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows. Burke introduces himself with a warning: "We’ll see how this goes here. I’ve not talked about my son, and I’ll apologize in advance if this doesn’t go real well for me…. My son, who passed away in February, was gay and, uh, just a great kid, a wonderful kid." Burke is tugging at his ear and his voice is cracking. "And died in a car accident, and I haven’t been able to talk about it since then, and as you can see, I’m not quite ready." He’s fighting back tears, and some of the boys are squirming in their seats, afraid of what’s going to happen next. Burke keeps his head down until he can pull himself together. He breaks the tension by apologizing in advance to the teachers in case he drops a curse word or two.
He tells the boys that it took a lot of courage for his son to tell him he was gay: "If you look at the line of work I’m in, the macho image that I have, I’m probably the biggest proponent of hard-nosed hockey that there is on the planet." He reminds them of the Welsh professional rugby player Gareth Thomas, one of the most rugged guys in the world, who recently came out. Some of the kids are bored, and you can see it in their restless legs. He grabs their attention back with a story about bullying when he was in ninth grade. "We had a boy with a learning disability in our class, and I came out of gym class and someone had tipped his books on the floor. Then someone kicked this kid, as hard as he could, as he bent down to pick up his books. I grabbed the kid who kicked him and threw him right through the trophy case on the other side of the hall. Broke all the glass, knocked all the trophies down. I just snapped. I didn’t think it was right." This is the Brian Burke everybody in the room recognizes.
Burke finishes talking, invites questions, and steps back from the podium. The room is dead quiet until Burke needles them: "Not one question in a whole room full of kids?" When a student asks if he regrets tossing that bully into the glass case, Burke doesn’t hesitate. "No. I know your teachers would like me to give a better answer than that, but no…. It seemed like a really good idea at that time, and the bullying stopped."
It’s not a natural path for Burke
Burke still thinks he shouldn’t have spoken at Andrew’s school. "I wasn’t ready," he says. "I’m still not ready." But people keep asking, and Burke keeps saying yes. Saint Michael’s College, Canada’s premier all-boys hockey high school, has asked him to speak. Last July, on a ferociously hot and sticky day, he marched in Toronto’s Pride Parade. Despite the heat, Burke wore jeans and a hockey jersey with Brendan’s name and the number 88 across the back. In October he attended the annual Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) dinner in New York City. And on November 3, Burke and Paul Tagliabue, the former NFL commissioner whose son, Drew, is openly gay, met in Washington, D.C., to talk about how they can work together to address homophobia in pro sports. "After my son came out, I had Hall of Fame athletes come to me and say, ‘My mother is a lesbian’ or ‘My uncle was gay,’" says Tagliabue. "When Brendan came out, Brian had a top hockey player tell him his sister was a lesbian. Moving forward, Brian and I want to work together to try and pull some of these prominent people together through PFLAG. We can do more together than on our own. I know it makes a difference."
Still, Burke desperately wishes he didn’t have to do any of this. He doesn’t want to cry in front of teenage boys. He doesn’t want to stare at the overflowing basket of unopened sympathy cards sitting on his desk. He doesn’t want to tell Brendan’s story to strangers. All he really wants to do is something he’s the best at in the NHL: managing a professional hockey team and winning a fistful of games along the way.
Mostly, though, he doesn’t want to believe he’s the worst possible person for the job that Brendan started, but he knows it’s true. He’s built a career on not blowing sunshine up his own ass and pretending he’s good at something he’s not. He knows that everything he needs now, to carry this water for Brendan, he doesn’t have. Brendan had it, the poise and natural charm, the easy passage between two worlds. Brendan was perfect for the job. Brendan went first. Now he has to go second.