â€œSuccessful teams are big. Weâ€™re not big enough, thatâ€™s one thing. And weâ€™re not hostile enough for me. I donâ€™t like playing flag football. I like teams that bang. I donâ€™t like the way we play â€¦ we want black and blue hockey here. Itâ€™s what we do in Alberta. And thatâ€™s the first thing. Weâ€™ve got to be big and more truculent â€” youâ€™re all waiting for the word, and there it is.â€
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."
Itâ€™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.
This is a great story in ESPN about Brendan Burke telling the rest of the Burke family that he is gay.
Your dad thinks through everything. Dad is big, confident and continuously radiates a persona that is rough, gruff, unrelenting and unapologetic. He has a cold, expressionless poker face straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie. Yet, he does this all with the most subtle of Irish smirks that says there is more behind this thick skin. And there is. He calls you "Moose" because you have always been a big kid. He cares very deeply about you and your happiness. You say he has always been there when you needed him. And he has a great sense of humor. Imagine that.
But on this night in 2007, you are petrified of your dad. Because you, Brendan Burke, at 19 years old, are about to tell your dad, Mr. Testosterone, that you are gay.
This is how he told the family.
It is Dec. 30, 2007, and you are in Vancouver with Dad for the holidays to break the news. His new family lives in Vancouver, and his Ducks are in town. You go to the Canucks-Ducks game, and, obviously, Dad is pretty emphatic about wanting to beat Vancouver, his former employer. You root like hell for the Ducks to win so he is in a good mood. But the Ducks lose 2-1. Of course, Daniel Sedin scores a goal against Anaheim, and his brother Henrik adds two assists to help beat Dad, the man who traded for the twins’ draft rights in 1999 while he was running the Canucks.
You almost don’t tell your dad and stepmom as a result of the loss. But you are flying back to Boston the next morning and you want to tell them in person. You feel as if you are going to throw up as you pace the hallways of their condominium. Just as your stepmom is about to go to bed, your younger sister, Molly, grabs you by the wrist and directs you where to go and gives you a look that says, "You can do it. Get it done now. I’m here for you."
Just a week before, your older sister, Katie, is the first family member you tell. You had targeted telling your family at Thanksgiving but got salmonella and spent the entire week in the hospital. So you push back your announcement to Christmas.
You are driving home from a family event in Marlboro, Mass., when you decide you want to say it during the car ride. Finally, after a 45-minute ride, you pass the city limits sign of Boston and you know you have to tell Katie. It is incredibly difficult, but your sister is very supportive. Of course she is, you tell yourself, she’s Katie. That same night, you tell Molly and your mom. Everyone is great. Mom tells you she isn’t surprised and had expected it from the time you were a little kid. Moms.
You tell your brother, Patrick, a day or two later. Patrick turns off the car blaring "The Hold Steady" CD, and you tell him as you are walking out to the car to bring in bags. Patrick, like Dad, never one to be fazed, says something along the lines of, "I love you. This doesn’t change anything. Now pick up that suitcase and bring it inside."
But, now, telling your secret to Dad is another story. Molly’s reassuring hand guides you to the couch for the moment of truth. It’s time to tell Dad, a most public example of hockey machismo, that you are gay.
Finally, you say it. Awkwardly. You basically stumble along trying not to make it a big deal before just blurting out, "And I love you guys and wanted to tell you that I’m gay."
There is a brief silence.
Dad is surprised when you tell him that you are gay. He never suspected at all.
Your stepmom speaks first: "OK, Brendan, that’s OK." And gives you a reassuring smile. Then your dad says, "Of course, we still love you. This won’t change a thing."
Your dad and stepmom both get up and hug you and say they love you. You and your dad then sit there alone for about 15 more minutes watching hockey. Your heart rate is still at a snow-shoveling level. You then hug Dad again, and you go to bed.
The relationship never changed after that.
Whatever happens in your life, whatever career path you choose, you know Dad is in your corner. His long shadow of a hockey rÃ©sumÃ© that once looked like a crutch might now prove to be just the thing you and others need — a powerful and eloquent voice shouting from the mountaintops.
This is far and away more than what you personally expected from your hockey-famous Dad as you prepared coming out to him. When people ask you about your dad’s reaction to your Vancouver sit-down, you initially say, "He’s been great, but I don’t think we’ll see him at any gay pride parades any time soon. But he has been really supportive."
So, you are startled this past summer when you get a call from Dad saying, "Hey, Toronto Pride is this weekend, you should fly up." So, sure enough, you fly up, and you and Dad go to the Toronto Pride Parade together.
If someone had told you before coming out that your dad, Brian Burke, would be attending a gay pride parade with you, you wouldn’t have believed it. You never suspected Dad would disown you or anything like that, but the way he has handled it and the way he talks about it now has, honestly, really moved you. He was a little awkward about it at first. Today, he doesn’t even think twice about it.
Itâ€™s a good story and sadly not all parents reacted the way the Burke family did.
Iâ€™ll leave the last word to Brian Burke from the story, "I hope the day comes, and soon, when this is not a story."