If you haven’t taken the time to look at GQ’s moving piece on Brian Burke and the mourning of his son Brendan then I strongly suggest you set aside 20-30 minutes to give the whole thing a thorough reading. There’s really no words I can put together to highlight the importance of Brendan Burke’s coming out in November 2009, but I don’t want to skim over the long and painful road that Brian Burke and his family has tried to endure since Brenden’s tragic passing in January 2010 either.
In between reading Mary Rogan’s GQ feature and telling my coworkers that I’m not crying and that “it’s just my allergies”, I thought that it would be a great idea to post a couple of passages here in an attempt to urge everyone to read the entire article. The bulk of the piece focuses on Brendan’s family learning, accepting, and supporting him following his decision to tell them he was gay, as well as his father’s efforts to carry on his legacy.
Here is just a small sample from GQ’s powerful feature on Brian Burke:
On the homophobic culture of hockey:
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.
Brendan Burke stopped playing hockey because his playing time was minimal and he had become enervated with locker-room slurs and homophobic behaviour:
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.
On Brendan coming out to his family:
Patrick [Burke] 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.”
Brian Burke’s insistence on preserving his son’s legacy, despite his continuing struggle to talk about the loss:
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.”
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.
Mary Rogan’s article will appear in the January issue of GQ. You can read the article in its entirety on GQ’s website.