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Brian Burke isn't just a legend of the NHL. He's a fists-up, knock-your-teeth-out gladiator. But when his hockey-loving son came out of the closet and died soon after, he was thrust into a strange new role: advocate for gays in a macho sports culture. He's no cheerleader—he looks like he hates every minute of it—but locker-room homophobia may have finally met its match.
By Mary Rogan -
Brian Burke is tormented by how much terror you can squeeze into ten seconds. Ten seconds in a car careening into oncoming traffic on a stretch of Indiana highway just shy of the Ohio border. Ten seconds sailing sideways through sheets of falling snow, straight at a reinforced truck. Ten seconds with the same unthinkable ending every time.
The sheriff at the other end of the phone told Burke that his son didn't suffer. The impact fractured the base of Brendan's skull and killed him instantly. In the passenger seat was his friend Mark Reedy. When the cops and paramedics arrived, Brendan's car was so mangled they couldn't tell Mark was inside. Mark was dead, too. Burke pressed the sheriff for more details. He needed to know exactly what happened, even if it added to the nightmare reel in his head.
The sheriff knew he was talking to one of the most powerful men in the National Hockey League. Burke is the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the most storied and lucrative franchise in NHL history. He's a six-foot-two beast of a man, a former minor league player renowned for his fierce temper and heavy hands in a brawl, a Harvard Law graduate and Stanley Cup winner as G.M. of the Anaheim Ducks. In the past thirty years, Burke has blistered through the ranks of NHL management, including a stint as discipline czar for commissioner Gary Bettman. "When he was working for me," Bettman recalls, "there was a picture of him in his office from when he played for the Maine Mariners, with blood all over his face and uniform. I knew this was a good, smart, tough guy with no b.s. about him."
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.
The next morning, February 6, 2010, Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman of the Maple Leafs, chartered a plane to fly Burke from Toronto to Cincinnati, but the same snowstorm that hammered the Midwest was now grounding flights out of Pearson International. He sat at the airport for six hours watching the snowbanks build along the sides of the tarmac and the daylight drain away. Brendan had already spent one night alone, and Burke was frantic at the thought of the sun going down on his child for the second time. He told himself he wasn't being rational. Brendan was dead—what difference would it make? Finally his flight left, and he arrived in Cincinnati late in the afternoon. From there, an air ambulance took him to Dayton, Ohio, where he landed just as the light was fading. They had Brendan waiting for him in a private room at the Dayton airport. He noticed a small cut on his chin. He thought to himself, This is not the right sequence of events; things aren't supposed to happen in this order.
Within an hour Burke was in the air again, flying his son home to Bedford, Massachusetts, where Brendan's mom, Burke's ex-wife, Kerry, was waiting with their three other grown children. A few days later, at Brendan's funeral, almost a thousand people, including the entire roster of the Maple Leafs, squeezed into the St. John the Evangelist Catholic church in Canton, just outside Boston. Then, three days after the funeral, Burke led the U.S. hockey team into the Vancouver Olympics. There were offers to replace him as general manager, but Burke knew quitting wasn't part of the deal. Throughout the Olympics, from their opening 3–1 win over Switzerland to the heartbreaking overtime loss to Canada in the gold-medal game, every member of the U.S. team wore a dog tag bearing the inscription In Memory of Brendan Burke.
As he tells this terrible story, Burke is sitting in the expansive backyard of his Toronto home, which overlooks one of the city's most beautiful ravines, maneuvering his cell phone on the patio table to show which way Brendan's car was facing when it crossed the center line. His voice is a low moan as he chokes out the words and lurches his way through the details. At his feet, on the weathered deck, are wet blotches from the tears he can't slap away fast enough. "Brendan died alone in the snow," he sobs. "And it haunts me that the last ten seconds of his life were filled with terror."
Before Brendan came out to an ESPN reporter in November 2009, his dad warned him how big this story would get. Nobody affiliated with the NHL—active, retired, or dead—was out as gay, because hockey isn't like any other sport. A hockey arena is a Thunderdome where giant men on steel blades crash around in pinball machines disguised as rinks, spitting out teeth and getting sewn up on the bench. It's a game with a strict code of macho behavior that most players learn before they're old enough to drive a car.
Less than a quarter of all NHL players come up through the NCAA. The best players are drafted into junior hockey when they're 15 or 16 and play for small-town teams across Canada and the United States. They live with local families and go to high school in town, but their job is hockey. By the time they lace up for an NHL game, they know that losing teeth is not a real injury, that backing away from a fight isn't an option, and that the worst thing you can call another player, the cluster bomb you drop to let a guy know just how soft you think he is, is cocksucker.
Cocksucker is just one of the words Burke promised Brendan he'd never use again.
Brian Burke is the fourth of ten kids from an Irish Catholic family. His dad worked as a salesman for Sunbeam, and every time he got a promotion, the family moved, working their way through Rhode Island, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston until they finally settled in Edina, Minnesota, a suburb outside Minneapolis, when Burke was 12. Hockey is king in Minnesota, and Burke was determined to compete. "I didn't have any equipment, I didn't know how to play, but I went down to the neighborhood rink in the middle of a team practice and asked the coach if I could play. The first game I played, I could hardly stand up." By his senior year of high school, he was good enough to make the team at right wing.
A year after that, he was a walk-on for the Division I team at Providence College in Rhode Island. In his second year he earned a half scholarship, and by the following season he was getting a full ride. But he never kidded himself about his talent. He was a mediocre skater and lacked finesse with the puck. Along with this unique gift for ruthless self-appraisal, Burke possessed size, hostility, and a ferocious work ethic. He was always the first on the ice for practice and last off, while maintaining a 3.9 GPA his last three years.
When he graduated, he had two golden tickets in his hand: admission to Harvard Law School and a two-year contract with the Philadelphia Flyers to play for one of their farm teams, the Maine Mariners. He put Harvard on hold, but after a year in minor league hockey, he took a hard look at the depth of the Flyers bench and asked his general manager for advice: "He told me, 'If you were my son, I'd tell you to go to law school.'" Burke graduated from Harvard Law in 1981 and went to work as an attorney representing NHL players. A decade later, he was G.M. of the Hartford Whalers. In his interview for the job, he told the owner, "If you hire Brian Burke to run your team, there will only be two hands on the steering wheel, and they'll both be mine." It's a warning he has issued to every potential employer who ever interviewed him. That includes his three-year stint in Anaheim (where his team brought home the Stanley Cup in 2007), the prestigious G.M. position for the Olympic team, and his current megawatt gig in Toronto.
Brendan was Burke's third child. He was born in 1988, just as Burke's career was taking off in Vancouver. Burke has six kids, four grown children with Kerry and two little girls with his second wife, Jennifer. After Burke and Kerry divorced in 1995, she moved back to Boston with the kids. Over the next decade, he spent countless hours in the air flying back east two weekends every month to see his children: "The physical wear and tear of that was tremendous, but I made it clear to my bosses in Vancouver and later Anaheim that I had committed to these two weekends. And now, especially after what happened with Brendan, I'm glad I did that."
Brendan was 16 when he told his family he was quitting hockey. He hadn't started playing sports until he was in seventh grade and was never an outstanding athlete, but he'd played for Xaverian Brothers High School, a small Catholic school outside Boston, since he was a freshman. He was six feet four and ungainly and played goalie because he could fill the net. Like his dad, he was passionate about hockey and had spent hours at NHL arenas with Burke, studying the game, meeting other general managers and the league's top players. His family was surprised when he quit but accepted his explanation that he wasn't keen on riding the bench his senior year. What they didn't know was that Brendan was sick of listening to the locker-room slurs about faggots and homos and the dreaded cocksucker. He was terrified that someone would out him to the other players, and he wanted to leave the team while his teammates were still his friends.
After high school, Brendan surprised his family again by choosing Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. A state school with 16,000 students and a sprawling campus, it was a hard right turn from Xaverian Brothers and a departure from the elite private colleges his family favored. He met his best friend, Scott Wiley, his first week of school at a fireworks display in Cincinnati. That night, the two freshmen talked for hours about high school and their worries about college. "I thought, I just met this kid and I feel like I'm best friends with him," Scott says. "Knowing that I could trust him was huge for me. I just latched on and didn't let him go."
Scott came out to Brendan in the middle of their freshman year. Brendan was the first person he'd ever told, even though people had been taunting him about being gay since he was a little boy. "With Brendan you could talk about anything," Scott says. "You could talk about guys. If a boy gave you a weird look and you thought he was interested, you could immediately text Brendan." When Brendan saw Scott struggling with coming out to his family, he walked him over to student health services to set up some counseling appointments.
It was Brendan's turn to come out to Scott in their sophomore year. "I knew something was up when Brendan came into the study room and sat across from me, acting skittery. He does this fumbly thing with his hands and says 'ah' a lot in this weird, drawn-out Canadian-Boston accent when he's feeling awkward. Then he said, 'I know we've talked a lot about you being gay, and I want you to know you're not alone.' I said, 'I know.' And he said, 'No, I mean you're not alone. I'm sorry I haven't told you this before, but I'm gay, too.'"
Even though they had a special connection, an unspoken understanding almost, Scott was surprised. "Brendan was such a sports guy, a pretty masculine dude, really, until you put on some Madonna," he says. "He wasn't your typical gay guy." A running joke between them was the glossary of butch hockey phrases that Brendan taught Scott so he could play along when friends started talking about the game.
By then, Brendan had found his way back to hockey as team manager for the Miami RedHawks, one of the top-ranked hockey teams in the NCAA. All those years shadowing his dad at NHL arenas paid off. He was a standout in the job, working closely with the coaches, reviewing game film, analyzing players, and handling recruiting correspondence. By Christmas, he'd also found the courage to come out to his family. He flew home to Boston and told his mother, his sisters Katie and Molly, and his brother, Patrick.
Patrick is five years older than Brendan, a Notre Dame graduate, part-time law student, and scout for the Philadelphia Flyers. Through the phone line, his voice is eerily like his father's but with more steel behind it. Patrick always knew he'd follow his dad into hockey management. He was coming off a road trip to Rhode Island when Brendan told him he was gay: "I had a bunch of bags in the car, and I went inside to tell Brendan he had to help get the luggage out. We're walking to the car and he said, 'I have something to tell you: I'm gay.' I said, 'Are you being serious? Are we having this conversation, or are you just joking around?' He said, 'No, I'm serious.' I said, 'Well, that doesn't change anything, and I love you—now grab those bags and let's go inside.' The whole conversation was about thirty seconds long, and when I opened the door I yelled, 'Mom, you owe me twenty bucks—I told you he was gay!'"
A couple of days later, Brendan flew out to Vancouver to tell his dad and his stepmom. "I had no inkling," Burke says. "So I said, 'Are you sure?' because I know for some people there's an ambivalence about it, and he said, 'Yeah,' and I said, 'Well, that's fine with me.' But later, I did say to Jennifer that I was worried. All I want for my kids is for them to be happy. I still think that being gay in our society, there's a great burden to it, and that's not right. As I went to bed, I thought, 'I hope he has a happy life. I hope it's not marked with persecution and bias and bigotry. I hope this burden isn't too much for him.' Especially if he was going to work in hockey."
Two years after coming out to his family, Brendan Burke decided to come out to the world. He understood this would be a big deal. Patrick agreed and told Brendan he should brace himself. As a scout, Patrick had racked up a lot of hours in locker rooms listening to the kind of talk that drove his little brother out of the sport in high school: "These are farm boys from Western Canada who haven't been exposed to much. It's not like N.Y.C., where everyone has fifteen gay friends. If you told an NHL player, 'You're going to have a gay teammate,' the first thing that would pop into his mind is Richard Simmons skipping into the locker room in a leotard and then he sits on your lap. That's the stereotype most of the guys have." Like his father, Patrick worried that coming out could scuttle Brendan's chances for a career in the NHL.
Brian Burke was consumed by deeper worries: "I said, 'Look, once this comes out, you have to be real careful, Brendan. You're walking home from a bar and some football player or some other guy decides we're gonna teach this homo a lesson. I don't want you walking home alone. Just keep your head on a swivel, because there are a lot of stupid people out there.' " Burke still shudders when he remembers how in those first few days after Brendan came out publicly, he couldn't stop thinking about what had happened to Matthew Shepard out in Wyoming. "That poor boy. I can't even talk about that boy. I can't even say his name."
On November 24, 2009, Brendan gave an interview to ESPN.com, and news outlets across Canada and the United States immediately picked up the story. The next day, Brendan and his dad appeared together on TSN, the Canadian equivalent of ESPN, for a special edition of their prime-time program NHL on TSN. It's one of the most popular sports shows in the country and is watched by NHL insiders on both sides of the border.
The interview ran live, between the first and second periods of the Toronto–Tampa Bay game. Brian Burke and TSN host James Duthie were in Toronto, and Brendan was in a studio in Boston. Duthie seemed nervous introducing Brendan and lingered awkwardly on the word gay, stretching it into two syllables, but nobody blinked. Brendan looked poised, with an easy smile and the same broad, handsome features as his dad. If he had any trepidation about telling hockey fans across the country that he was gay, it didn't show. Duthie hit him with his first question, which was why, when he came out to his family, did he save his dad for last? Brendan grinned, as if he knew what Duthie was thinking, and reassured him that the order was just a coincidence. In fact, a big part of the reason he was coming out to the world now was the unﬂinching support he'd gotten from his dad all along. "I think it's important, because I've been supported so strongly by my family," he said. "There are a lot of gay athletes out there and gay people working in pro sports that deserve to know that there are safe environments where people are supportive of you regardless of your sexual orientation."
Duthie turned and asked Brian what he thought of Brendan's decision and got a vintage, unscripted Burke answer. "I'm very proud of Brendan," he said. "If I had to pick, I would have picked him to go second. Let someone else go first. It's not the message that he has, which is a wonderful one, but pioneers are often misunderstood. You don't wish this on your son. You wish that someone else carries that burden first, but this is what he wanted to do, and we support him.... It takes a lot of jam to take this step. He's obviously a fearless kid. But he's a real bright kid and a sweet kid, and I'm very proud of him."
After the interview, there were the usual nasty trolls posting on the Internet, but Brendan also received hundreds of e-mails and letters from gay athletes across North America thanking him for coming out. Clips from the interview were posted on YouTube and aired on news and sports programs in the United States and Canada. Back at Miami University, Brendan's teammates embraced him, and the hockey coach, Rico Blasi, says the news changed the tone of the locker room. Brendan let everyone know that there was one word he despised even more than cocksucker, and that was faggot. But his rapport with the players made the transition easy. "He was good about it," Blasi says. "He had a great sense of humor, and if something was questionable, he'd be the first to laugh about it or crack a joke."
Around the league, Patrick found most people were polite, at least in public: "I'm sure there were people who were surprised or had something cruel to say behind closed doors, but at the end of the day, everyone I heard from, with varying degrees of awkwardness about it, was supportive." Patrick knows having the last name Burke didn't hurt; a lot of people in the league had known Brendan since he was a little boy. But what would it be like for a fringe player, the guy who wasn't a superstar or related to a powerful NHL executive? "You hear tons of rumors about different guys," Patrick says. "Most statistics say one in ten people are gay. Factor in how hard it is to be a professional athlete and the fact that we [the NHL] haven't been the most welcoming group—even if it's one in thirty, you're probably talking about thirty players at least."
Despite the rock-'em-sock-'em, no-cocksuckers-allowed culture of the hockey world, Patrick is optimistic about the future: "I know there are people who would disagree with me, but I think in the next five years we're going to have a gay player come out. Everything that has happened with Brendan has really started a discussion. People in hockey are talking about it. I have to think that some of the gay players in the NHL have seen this and are thinking about it, too."
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."
Somewhere in the crowd of khaki pants and blue shirts is Andrew Mok. Andrew came out at the beginning of his freshman year by changing his Facebook interests to "men," but nobody noticed for months. Now he has two lives. At school he's careful to tone down his more feminine mannerisms and butch up his voice. He tries to look busy when the talk inevitably turns to sports or girlfriends. Outside of school he gets to be more flamboyant and talkative with his friends, who are mostly girls.
Andrew says he's not sure that Burke's speech will make any difference to the clowns who have been hissing things about his sexuality at him for years, but he says that he felt recognized, and that was amazing. "He told us you can be buff and masculine and all that and not be homophobic," he says. "I never would have thought that anyone like him, with his character—a butch, manly kind of person—would be advocating for me. I was really glad."
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.