December 8, 1988 – Brendan Burke:
“I think it’s important my story is told to people, because there are a lot of gay athletes out there and gay people working in pro sports that deserve to know there are safe environments where people are supportive regardless of your sexual orientation.’’
He started on skates when he was just three years old, and as a kid, he hung out in the locker rooms of National Hockey League teams. Burke’s life revolved around hockey.
Burke had considered joining his father’s profession, sports team management, and he was also intrigued with the idea of becoming a politician, taking a internship for Representative William D. Delahunt (Democrat, Massachusetts) in 2009.
Burke was well known in hockey circles after he came out as a gay man. In an ESPN interview, Burke described what it was like to be a young, gay athlete, struggling to come to terms with his sexuality in a culture where homophobic slurs are common.
He returned each year to his alma mater, Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, a small town in Massachusetts, to talk to students at the all-boys Catholic school about his struggles, and how his father, the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the United States Men’s Olympic Hockey Team, was among his biggest supporters.
Burke was 21 years old, and a senior at Miami University in Ohio, when he was killed in a car accident in Indiana while driving in a snowstorm. His friend Mark A. Reedy, 18, also died in the crash.
Burke was born in Vancouver, BC, where he became hooked on hockey. As a youth he served as a goalie; he made the varsity team at his high school, but he declined, saying he feared he would not receive enough ice time. The real issue was more complicated. Burke:
“Middle school and early high school is the first time I remember thinking that I could be gay, but I definitely tried to ignore it and didn’t want to seriously consider it. It’s pretty easy to try and convince yourself that it’s not true, but it won’t work, ever.’’
Gay slurs were common in the locker room, and teammates were bragging about their heterosexual conquests.
Burke graduated from high school in 2006 and headed to Miami University. He returned to hockey as a student manager of the university team.
His father, Brian Burke, who was born in Providence and played hockey at Providence College, was general manager of the NHL champion Anaheim Ducks at the same time. His father called Burke “Moose’”, a reference to his son’s big physique.
At Christmas 2007, Burke came out to his three siblings. He was terrified about telling his father, but finally did, saying:
“I love you and wanted to tell you that I’m gay.”
His father and stepmother gave him a big hug, told him they loved him, and then father and son watched hockey together. His father later invited Burke to Toronto for the Toronto Pride Parade, which father and son attended together. The Burkes appeared on the Canadian sports channel TSN, where Burke said he hoped his story would give other gay athletes and those working in professional sports the confidence to come out.
“I had a million good reasons to love and admire Brendan. This news didn’t alter any of them. This takes guts, and I admire Brendan greatly and happily march arm-in-arm with him on this. There are gay men in professional hockey. We would be fools to think otherwise. And it’s sad they feel the need to conceal this.’’
Next, Burke came out to the Miami University hockey team, which also was supportive. Enroico Blasi, his head coach at Miami U told ESPN:
“Brendan is a great guy, personable and caring. I think having Brendan as part of our program has been a blessing. We are much more aware of what you say and how we say it. I am guilty as anyone. We need to be reminded that respect is not a label, but something you earn by the way you live your life.’’
Burke was concerned that the news story about his coming out might be distracting to the team and approached Blasi with the offer to walk away from the story if Blasi disapproved. Blasi gave it his full support. His team was also accepting of his coming out.
After Burke was killed, a spokesperson for Representative Delahunt issued a statement that read:
“Brendan was an incredibly talented and gifted person who was smart beyond his years. Congressman Delahunt once said Brendan possessed a very special gift and deep compassion for others that would make him an outstanding public servant. He picked up on the nuances of the often-bewildering office and often helped the congressman tackle concerns of constituents. He worked during the health care reform debate when the office was inundated with calls. He’s probably one of the best interns we’ve ever had. He had a bright future ahead of him.’’
The idea of running for office intrigued Burke. He still enjoyed hockey, though, and had applied to law school as he headed into the second semester of his senior year.
As his story became known, Burke received hundreds of emails and letters of support from gay athletes from across the continent. The news of his father’s acceptance also earned Brian Burke praise from press and fans inside and outside the hockey world.
The news launched Brendan into advocacy, speaking about homophobia in hockey and encouraging discussion on the challenges faced by gay athletes in hockey and mainstream sports in general.
Toronto’s chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) began using Burke’s coming-out story as a teaching tool, stating that the story could “change so many families across Canada, particularly because so many young boys are expected to grow up playing with a hockey stick and make their dads happy.” His coming out story gained attention from a large variety of news outlets in the days that followed.
After the accident that took his life, a moment of silence was observed prior to the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Ottawa Senators game. Another moment of silence was also observed prior to the Miami University hockey game vs. Lake Superior State. The team also named him honorary first star of the game. The St. Louis Blues also held a moment of silence for Burke prior to their game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Burke’s funeral was attended by more than 1,000 people, including the full roster of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Miami University Hockey Redhawks teams. In April 2010, USA Hockey established the “Brendan Burke Internship” in honor of his work in hockey; it is given annually to a recent college graduate seeking to pursue a career in hockey. Burke’s high school alma mate erected a statue on the campus in his memory. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television aired The Legacy Of Brendan Burke (2010), a documentary detailing Burke’s story and the discussion it generated about homophobia in hockey.
During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the US Men’s Hockey Team wore dog tags inscribed with the words “In Memory of Brendan Burke”. In June 2010, Chicago Blackhawk sent the team’s recently won Stanley Cup with defenseman Brent Sopel who then marched in the 2010 Chicago Gay Pride Parade. Sopel began his NHL career with Vancouver and became friends with Burke when he was the general manager there. Although he had been traded to Atlanta earlier in the week, Sopel honored Burke, stating to the press that honoring Burke’s legacy and his father’s example of support and tolerance was one of his reasons for marching in the parade.
The New England Hockey Journal wrote that Burke would be remembered as a pioneer for addressing the issue of homophobia in hockey. Andrew Sobotka, president of the Chicago Gay Hockey Association, attributed a doubling in the organization’s membership to Burke’s legacy and the Stanley Cup’s appearance at the 2010 Gay Pride parade, describing the continued debate about gays in hockey as “everyone carrying Burke’s torch.”
Burke’s older brother Patrick Burke announced that the Burke family promised their “unwavering, unremitting, relentless support” for the cause of equality in sports and to continue working to end homophobia in hockey.
Since Burke’s death, his father has continued advocating against homophobia in professional sports, working with former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, whose son is also openly gay. In 2012, the Burke family founded the You Can Play campaign to fight homophobia in sports.