Olympics a Reminder of Burke’s Courage

“I may not have a lot to give but what I’ve got I’ll give to you.” – The Beatles [All My Loving]

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (July 29) – As I watched the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics on Friday, three thoughts came to mind – in ascending order: a) it is the hope of hockey fans in Toronto that the Rogers-Bell consortium governs the Maple Leafs as efficiently as its joint-coverage of the Games – two years ago in Vancouver, now in London; b) among the highlights of my career at The Fan-590 (now Sportsnet-590) was taking part in the first-ever live radio broadcast of an Olympics Opening Ceremony – at B.C. Place Stadium, with former colleagues Doug Farraway and Dan Dunleavy – on Feb. 12, 2010, and c) I doubt I will ever-again witness the courage, resolve and commitment displayed by Brian Burke at the Vancouver Games, which began exactly one week after his son, Brendan, was killed in an automobile mishap.

From my teen-aged years watching sports, I’ve been fortunate to witness – in person – a number of defining moments. I was at Maple Leaf Gardens on Feb. 7, 1976 when Darryl Sittler annihilated the Boston Bruins with six goals and four assists for 10 points: still an NHL record. Nearly six months later, I marveled at the scope of Montreal’s new Olympic Stadium toward the end of the ’76 Summer Games as Greg Joy won a silver medal for Canada in the high jump, flopping backward over the bar in a steady rain. Later that night – and thanks to my father, Irv, emptying his wallet – I sat nearly dead-center in the Montreal Forum for the Olympic boxing finals while Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks and Leon Spinks won gold medals for the United States.

And, oh, how I rejoiced in November 1983 at B.C. Place – as a tortured fan of the Toronto Argonauts for nearly a decade-and-a-half – when the Double Blue ended its 31-year Grey Cup famine, defeating the home-town B.C. Lions on a late touchdown pass from Joe Barnes to Cedric Minter (I was working, part-time, for the company that published CFL game programs).

Twenty-three years at The Fan-590 featured a lifetime of memories. Among them:

*Covering the final Blue Jays game at Exhibition Stadium [May 28, 1989]; the gala Opening Ceremony of the new SkyDome [now Rogers Center, June 3, 1989] and the first Blue Jays game in the ‘Dome, against Milwaukee, two nights later.

*Standing in the visitors’ broadcast booth at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Oct. 25, 1992 – behind Jerry Howarth and the late Tom Cheek – when Mike Timlin flipped to Joe Carter for the Blue Jays first of consecutive World Series triumphs.

*Covering 21 Stanley Cup playoff games in 42 days during the Leafs marvelous journey of 1993 through Detroit, St. Louis and Los Angeles – Doug Gilmour brilliantly leading the club to Game 7 of the Conference final only to have Wayne Gretzky spoil the party.

*Sitting in the upper-deck of Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium [now Turner Field] in late-July 1996 as Donovan Bailey of Canada sped past me down below while winning the prestige event of the Summer Olympics: the 100-meter final.

*Watching in amazement at the Big Hat Arena in Nagano, Japan as Dominik Hasek of the Czech Republic thwarted Canada in a semifinal shoot-out of the 1998 Winter Olympics – Gretzky glued to the bench by coach Marc Crawford.

*Covering Gretzky’s final game in the NHL – at Madison Square Garden on Apr. 18, 1999 – an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, after which the Great One skated beneath a spot-light in the darkened arena, waving to an emotional audience.

*Attending another joyous occasion in February 2002 at the E Center in Salt Lake City while Team Canada (with Gretzky as Executive Director) whipped the host Americans 5-2 to break a 50-year gold medal drought in hockey at the Winter Olympics.

*Being part of the Fan Network radio-broadcast crew in Vancouver (alongside Hall-of-Famer Peter Maher, John Garrett  and Dan Dunleavy) with a center-ice position at Canada Hockey Place [real name: Rogers Arena] for the “golden goal” by Sidney Crosby two years ago February – which I happened to record with a videocam from the booth.

These moments will be with me as long as I live. But, I can package all of them, multiply by 100, and still not experience the marvel – the surrealistic wonderment – of sitting before Brian Burke at the Vancouver Convention Centre on the afternoon of Feb. 14, 2010. Coincidentally, it happened to be my daughter Lauren’s 10th birthday, which augmented the fascination of Burke expounding on his responsibility as head of the U.S. Olympic hockey team – only nine days after the tragic loss of his son. I remember looking about the generally-packed auditorium at even the most-hardened, veteran journalists – all of whom were transfixed on the podium.

“My family needs me to be strong now and my team needs me to be strong,” Burke said, struggling with, but maintaining composure. “Part of leadership is dealing with personal adversity; there was never a thought about not coming [to the Olympics]. I’ve been asked to do a job and I’m going to do it. The fact I’ve had a tragic event in my life shouldn’t change that. My son would have wanted me to be here.

“It’s very hard but I cry a little less each day.”

BRIAN BURKE SOMEHOW HOLDS IT TOGETHER WHILE ADDRESSING AN AUDITORIUM JAMMED WITH REPORTERS ON FEB. 14, 2010, DURING INTRODUCTORY NEWS CONFERENCE FOR U.S. HOCKEY TEAM AT THE VANCOUVER WINTER OLYMPICS. HIS SON, BRENDAN, HAD BEEN KILLED IN A CAR ACCIDENT ONLY NINE DAYS EARLIER.

These were difficult words to assimilate. No hockey observer would have given a second thought to Burke not only skipping the Vancouver Games, but taking an indefinite leave from his role as president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He did neither… somehow soldiering on to oversee both positions at a time of incomprehensible grief. For that, he gained my everlasting admiration, irrespective of his achievement – or lack thereof – with the Blue and White.

Moments after the press conference, Burke pulled aside a chair and was surrounded by a dozen-or-so reporters that had known him the longest. Amid such a group, he felt less-compelled to withhold emotion – dabbing at tears as he spoke about Brendan, who had revealed his homosexuality only weeks before the accident.

“He was a courageous kid, a gregarious kid, a compassionate kid,” Burke said. “He was very bright and cared a lot about people. The saddest part about it was that his future was so bright. The sky was the limit for this kid.

“He was born Dec. 8, 1988,” Burke continued, “weighing eight pounds and eight ounces. Eight is a lucky number for people of Chinese descent. The day he was born, the nurses kept rubbing his head. I said to one of them, ‘What’s the deal?’ And she said, ‘Oh, that’s a very lucky baby.’ So I said, ‘Rub his foot — he’s going to go bald.’ ”

When Burke told another story, it was tough for even the small gathering of reporters to keep from tearing up. “Brendan was at a college dance one night and noticed a girl sitting by herself – no one had asked her to dance. He felt badly so he went up and led her onto the floor. That’s the kind of person he was… a wonderful kid with just a magnetic personality. I feel fortunate I had him for 21 years.”

Scrumming Burke on that late-afternoon in Vancouver was a heart-wrenching, yet extraordinary moment. I’m not certain you needed to be a parent to comprehend the anguish he felt, but having two children of my own amplified such grief. That’s why – for me – the London Olympics aren’t necessarily about Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Clara Hughes, Alex Despatie or any of the other marvelous athletes.

Instead, the Games of the 30th Olympiad are a constant reminder of Burke’s strength and courage amid the most unspeakable circumstance.

Email: howardLberger@gmail.com

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