A faithful reader (and hockey fan) to this blog sent me an article that was published in the Toronto Star on November 25, 2009.
A SON'S SECRET. A FATHER'S LOVE.
Brian Burke loves telling stories about his kids, all six of them. Of his son Brendan, he in particular loves telling one from years ago when the boy was just 3 and the family went to Florida.
"So we're on the bus going to get our rental car and Brendan's going from family to family, introducing himself, saying we're from Vancouver and is this their first time in Florida?" Burke recalled Tuesday, laughing at the memory.
"It was like he was running for mayor. But that's him. He's special. People trust him immediately. He has a very sweet side that I envy because I don't have it.
"I just wish every parent could experience having a child like him."
Brendan's now 20, set to turn 21 next month, and the hockey world learned Tuesday that he's gay through a powerful and poignant story published online on ESPN.com, written by writer/broadcaster John Buccigross, a friend of the Burke family.
Burke, the president and general manager of the Maple Leafs and one of the best-known figures in all of hockey, learned of his son's sexual orientation at Christmas 2007. He knew ahead of time that his son, a student at the University of Miami (Ohio) and a student worker on the school's highly regarded hockey team, had spoken to Buccigross and that a story was to be released Tuesday afternoon.
"The feedback has been awesome," Burke said Tuesday, about three hours after the story was first posted. "My emails have been off the charts."
At the same time, however, Burke believes there will be those who won't embrace the family love inherent in his acceptance of his son's orientation or of Brendan's decision to go public with his sexuality. Burke remembered that when he was in California in November to vote in the U.S. presidential election – he voted for Barack Obama – he was aggressively confronted by anti-gay activists protesting a same-sex marriage proposition on the California ballot.
"I told them to (expletive) get lost," said Burke, who also voted for the proposition. "But over the next two weeks, yeah, I expect to get some hate mail over today's story. There is going to be a backlash. All I care about is if Brendan is prepared for it. It takes jam to do what he's done."
Brendan Burke, a former goalie, analyzes video and does stats for the Miami team, currently ranked No. 1 in the NCAA. The team's coach, Enrico Blasi, and the rest of the team first learned of Brendan's secret after the Frozen Four last spring.
"I think having Brendan as part of our program has been a blessing," Blasi told ESPN.com. "We are much more aware of what you say and how you say it."
Brendan isn't sure of his future plans, but seeing as how his older brother, Patrick, is a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, a career in hockey is certainly an option. That said, there are no openly gay individuals working in hockey operations in any of the major pro or amateur leagues.
"Honestly, as a father, I can say I would rather it was some other kid blazing this trail," said Brian Burke, himself one of 10 children. "But only because of the negativism that may come of it. I support Brendan completely.
"But I guess I wish maybe he was second."
In the ESPN.com piece, Brendan Burke indicated he quit high school hockey because of what he perceived to be overt homophobia in the dressing room. He said the support of not only his family but also of Miami's hockey organization made his decision to come out easier.
"Imagine if I was in the opposite situation, with a family that wouldn't accept me, working for a sports team where I knew I couldn't come out because I'd be fired or ostracized," Brendan Burke told ESPN.com.
"People in that situation deserve to know that they can feel safe, that sports isn't all homophobic and that there are plenty of people in sports who accept people for who they are."
His father understands that because of his reputation as a hard-nosed, black-and-blue executive who extols the virtues of fighting in hockey, this story will ring even more powerfully to many parents and families.
"I've got six kids, I drive a truck, I own a shotgun and I chew tobacco, so sure, this adds a different dimension," he said. "This isn't about me and it isn't about the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's about a young man who has done something that takes a lot of courage.
"But if my acceptance can turn into more acceptance on the part of other people, that's great."
Part of that acceptance was calling his son and inviting him to come to Toronto to experience this year's Gay Pride Parade.
"A few people recognized me and said hello," said Burke. "I would have marched in it if I'd known more about it. I'll march next year if I'm asked."
All to demonstrate a father's love of a son who no longer has to live a secret.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving.