Burke and Gretzky Join Forces

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (May 27) — It has been more than five years since Brendan Burke died in an automobile mishap in Indiana, but it must seem like 500 years to his father, Brian Burke. To endure the passing of a child is the cruelest fate of all. Brian’s tragic nightmare began on Feb. 5, 2010. It should surprise no one that he continues fighting long and hard to wrangle something positive from the absolute worst moment of his life.

His latest effort will be reinforced by hockey’s biggest–ever name. Wayne Gretzky and Burke will co–host the second annual NIGHT FOR CHANGE to end homophobic bullying. It takes place on June 8th at the Toronto home of Mike Wilson — better known as the Ultimate Leafs Fan.

Burke, of course, was president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs from November 2008 to January 2013. The lone playoff appearance by the club since 2004 occurred largely with the team he assembled for the lockout–abbreviated schedule of 2012–13. The Leafs took heavily–favored Boston to seven games and led the deciding match, 4–1, in the third period at TD Garden before the Bruins scrambled back to win, 5–4, in overtime. Burke had been abruptly fired four months earlier and is now president of the young, dynamic Calgary Flames.

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CALGARY FLAMES PRESIDENT BRIAN BURKE.

Gretzky is considered alongside Bobby Orr as the greatest player to ever live. He re–wrote the National Hockey League record book while leading the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cup titles in five years between 1984 and 1988. His single–season marks of 92 goals and 215 points were threatened a generation ago by Brett Hull and Mario Lemieux. No player has since come close to either number. Wayne still has more career assists (1,963) than any player has points (Mark Messier 1,887) and is hockey’s all–time most internationally–renowned figure.

It would be difficult to solicit — for one night — a more compelling tandem to lead the struggle against homophobic bullying.

Shortly before his death, Brendan Burke announced he was homosexual. It was a uniquely brave revelation — fully and publicly supported by his father — and such a dreadful twist of irony that his life would end less than three months later at age 21. Brendan was driving a a 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee on U.S. Route 35 near Economy, Indiana just before 3 p.m. on Feb. 5, 2010 when he lost control of the vehicle in a winter storm and slid sideways into an on–coming truck. Burke’s passenger — 18–year–old Mark Reedy of Bloomfield Hills, Mich. — was also killed.

Several days after burying his son, Brian Burke followed through on his obligation as general manager of the United States men’s hockey team at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. It is the most selfless, courageous act I’ve witnessed in my 35–year career covering sports.

Brendan had been student manager of the men’s hockey team at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Prior to his death, he boldly renounced homophobia while encouraging equality in professional sport. One can only imagine how proud he would be of the news, this past week, that Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League had welcomed defensive end Michael Sam — the first openly gay player in the sport.

Brian Burke spoke enthusiastically about the watershed signing.

“I think it’s huge,” he told The Canadian Press. “To me, this is one of those [situations that] 20, 30, 40 years from now, people will look back and say ‘remember when Michael Sam signed with the Alouettes?’ We know we have gay athletes in all sports. I think other gay athletes are going to see the reception that Michael Sam gets and how wonderful it’ll be for him.” Burke also addressed the inherent challenges. “You get some idiots on the Internet. You always do,” he said. “But instead of a hostile environment, [Sam] will see that intelligent and enlightened people welcome him in this role in Canada and wish him luck.”

Joining Burke and Gretzky for the June 8th charity event will be Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and Gretzky’s prolific teammate from the Edmonton years — fellow Hall–of–Famer Paul Coffey.

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BRENDAN BURKE: DEC. 8, 1988 — FEB. 5, 2010.

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