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March 01, 2010
Barely a week after his son Brendan died in a car crash, Maple Leafs G.M. Brian Burke was in Vancouver keeping his commitment to the U.S. team he forged—and vowing to champion gay rights in Brendan's memory
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March 01, 2010

Man Of His Word

Barely a week after his son Brendan died in a car crash, Maple Leafs G.M. Brian Burke was in Vancouver keeping his commitment to the U.S. team he forged—and vowing to champion gay rights in Brendan's memory

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Four days later Burke arrives in the city where, as president and G.M. of the Canucks from 1998 through 2004, he built a perennial playoff team. The Olympics are an obligation, not an option, to the 54-year-old. As Team USA practices in a frigid community arena, Burke says, "Lincoln lost a son in the White House. So did Jefferson Davis in the Confederacy. They didn't go home. They finished the job. USA Hockey didn't ask me to do this on the basis of, Will you do this if your personal life allows it?"

Burke, a Civil War buff, does not mean to sound self-aggrandizing by comparing his situation with Lincoln's and Davis's. He just does. "There's not a shortage of ego to the man," says Mike Milbury, a former NHL player, coach and G.M., and Burke's friend of three decades. "I think he wants to have a particular image, and he works at that image. He wants to be a world-class executive. He wants to be in the Hall of Fame. He works extraordinarily hard, in every aspect of his life. For years he was flying coast-to-coast every other weekend to see his kids. And he wasn't always making $3 million a year." Once Burke skipped a Canucks playoff game because it was his weekend with the four children from his first marriage. He made time for them—and on a life-changing Friday in February, that gave him a bit of solace.

A policeman walks past and drops a VANCOUVER POLICE cap on the bench next to Burke, who worked with the department when he lived in the city. "Thanks for taking care of us when you were here," the officer says. In the Burke canon of he-man hockey there always is payback. Now it comes in a different form, from a cop he had never met.

Burke has cried only twice this day, but it is early, a little after two o'clock. This is the first time he has smiled.

Sure, Burke took care of the cops in Vancouver. He takes care of almost everyone. That's something Joan and Bill Burke taught their 10 children. Brian, the fourth, began donating blood, with his parents' permission, at 16. He taught reading to inner-city kids. One rule at his four NHL stops has been that players must do community work.

"His personal touches," Milbury says, "are somewhat legendary." Burke has flown to the funerals of children of old college teammates. With the Dodgers clubhouse in tatters near the end of the 2007 season, he drove to Manhattan Beach at 5:30 one morning to lend a sympathetic ear. Burke texts, but at a time when even e-mail seems so 20th century, he sends handwritten notes—of congratulation, of commiseration. After a hockey writer had quadruple bypass surgery in 2002, Burke sent him a bookstore gift certificate with the note, "I wasn't aware sportswriters had hearts."

There are other things Burke says he didn't know. Like this: In times of sob-till-your-chest-hurts tragedy, tissues do not hold up. Go with paper towels.

A few days after Brendan came out to his father, in late December 2007, Brian told him, "You know the best part? I don't have to take anything back." Burke says he never told his children there was anything wrong with homosexuality. But when he really rummages through his memory, he concedes there are smudges on his otherwise clean conscience. When he played in the American Hockey League in the late 1970s—he was a stay-at-home defenseman whose skills fast-tracked him to Harvard Law School—he spoke in the lingua franca of the locker room. "Yeah, I used those slurs," he says. "I'm embarrassed by it. It was an accepted part of the [hockey] culture, and it still is. But not on my teams. It's a big part of trash talking, and that's got to change."

After Brendan publicly revealed his sexual preference, Brian was flooded with requests to do advocacy work on behalf of gays. He told the groups that while he supported his son, he had other causes: land conservation, blood donation and children's literacy. He didn't want to dilute that work. This, too, changed on that Friday in February. Brendan's causes are Brian's now. He will do a public-service announcement aimed at eliminating the bullying of gay children. And he plans to march in the Toronto Pride Parade. "I'd promised him I would march with him," says Burke, who briefly left the Olympics last Friday to attend a memorial service for Brendan at Miami of Ohio. "He won't be there, but I will."

There is one more thing he owes his son.

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