Brian Burke said he 'simply could not be more proud of Brendan' when he came out publicly in November. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
And just like that, hockey's place in the order of things that are truly important suddenly snaps back into perspective.
The sad news that Brendan Burke, 21, son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM and Team USA GM Brian Burke, died Friday night after succumbing to injuries sustained in a car crash in Indiana is a tragedy that makes things like trade deadlines, NHL playoff berths and Olympic tournaments seem like little more than surreal, meaningless pastimes.
According to news reports, a black Jeep heading east slid sideways into oncoming traffic and collided with a westbound pickup truck Friday afternoon. The driver of the truck escaped without injury, but Burke and 18-year-old Mark Reedy, both of whom were in the Jeep, were killed; in the blink of a teary eye, two young lives came to a heartbreaking end.
“We are saddened to report that Brendan Burke, the youngest son of Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke, succumbed to injuries he suffered in an auto accident…in Indiana,” the Leafs said in a statement Friday night. “The family asks for privacy at this difficult time.”
For the Burke family, it's an incomprehensible, horrifying event. We hope they can at least take some solace in the rare courage that Brendan showed before his untimely and unfortunate passing.
Brendan Burke came into national prominence last November when he came out and identified himself as gay in a story on ESPN.com. It was a brave, pioneering decision for a young man who hoped to perhaps one day make his living in the rock 'em, sock 'em world of hockey. Shortly after the announcement, father Brian and son Brendan appeared on TSN during the intermission of a Maple Leafs game, along with TSN hockey host James Duthie, and frankly discussed Brendan's motivations for going public with his private life.
"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," said Brendan Burke that night.
Brian Burke strongly supported his son, who came out to his family late in 2007.
"I said, 'It won't change anything Brendan. It doesn't change our view, we love you and we're proud of you. It doesn't change anything in my mind and it never will,' " said Brian Burke, recalling his reaction to Brendan's announcement.
Brendan was the student-manager of the Miami (Ohio) University hockey team. He told TSN he was thinking about going to law school and then perhaps might try to get a job in the world of pro hockey.
He wasn't sure, he said; after all, he had his whole life ahead of him. He had a friendly smile on his face throughout the interview and you couldn't help but like the kid. In the days that followed, Brendan expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support that he received.
Here's hoping the Burke family receives a similar outpouring of support, and that Brendan's legacy lives on as brave young man who stood up and was counted.
RIP, Brendan, and condolences to your friends and family.
Sam McCaig is The Hockey News' senior copy editor and a contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.