A good man and a large family is grieving in Boston this week after a tragedy of the sort every parent fears. Brian Burke, former Vancouver hockey linchpin, lost 21 year-old son Brendan who crashed while driving with a friend in poor winter weather. Hockey people and many others across North America mourn with the Burke family.
Born in Vancouver, Brendan grew up mostly in Boston. He played hockey until his final year of high school and reengaged with the game as a student manager of his university's hockey team. At age 19, Brendan came out publicly as a gay man and admitted the former secret had influenced his decision to quit as a player. Hockey and all high level sports have not been gay friendly and that made Brendan's journey to acceptance more arduous.
In November 2009, ESPN writer John Buccigross wrote We love you, this won't change a thing, the story of Brendan's life challenges and his family's responses. This is a polished article, written with sensitivity and understanding for everyone, even those who would make a gay man's life difficult. The loving response that Brendan experienced probably does not surprise those who know his father well. I don't know Brian much at all and I was not surprised.
Years ago, I edited a minor hockey newsletter. Having heard Brian give interesting views on kids' sport when he spoke at a hockey convention, I wanted to convey his thoughts to our association members. How to do it in a unique way was the question. I asked two teenage players to interview Burke and write a report from their point of view about his hockey ideas. The young guys agreed but the Canucks' press office said no, that Mr. B. was too busy.
Days later, I got a call from Burke's assistant telling me to name a day for the meeting. I asked what had changed. Her reply, "When Brian heard the request had been denied, he said, 'Call them back. I wanna do it'."
Burke hosted the boys, with a parent escort and me. The NHL team's offices could intimidate but Brian was quiet and reassuring. He made the young people as comfortable as possible - he knows his reputation - and said, "Ask me anything." Then began what wasn't Brian's toughest ever interview but he was totally and sincerely committed.
About half an hour later, Burke says, "Do you want a tour of the building?" He didn't call for a flunky, he led the group himself, going in and out of places throughout the rink. We laughed at the plumbing facilities in the basketball players' dressing rooms. Seven footers need different fixtures than little guys.
I listened to all the positive things Burke says about kids in sport. He pisses off parents of 10 year-old superstars because he says, forget about bodychecking, toughness and fighting; teach children the fine skills and love for the game. They'll learn the rough stuff later, if they need to, when they're grown.
In a few dealings with him for minor hockey, I found Brian Burke to be a real gem. It doesn't surprise me that he's a great Dad too. Writer/broadcaster Buccigross portrays a family with love and respect for each other. After Brendan's declaration, although surprised, his father was boldly and publicly supportive. In 2009, he telephoned Brendan at school, asking him to fly to Toronto so they could together attend one of the world's preeminent Pride Parades. He said he'll walk in the parade next year if asked.
The story of one family's challenge, response and subsequent tragedy will resonate in homes throughout much of North America, particularly in those challenged by issues of sexual identity. The Burke clan, despite bereavement, will someday share satisfaction that during a critical moment, they stood together and gave Brendan the support he deserved. There will be no regrets about words left unspoken.
John Buccigross, ESPN, Feb 10 2010, There's a light that never goes out.
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