Brian Burke. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
TORONTO - She reached out to Brendan Burke to say she was proud of him. Irene Miller wanted to tell the stranger who she had never met that he had done a good thing, and that by declaring he was gay in the realm of sports, he had changed lives for the better.
Miller, whose son came out when he was a high school senior, sent Burke a message last fall. Burke, the youngest son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, discussed in an article published by ESPN.com how he had decided to tell his family, and how well they had accepted him.
As a member of the board of directors for the Toronto chapter of PFLAG - Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays - Miller had begun using the article as a teaching tool. And it was not long before Burke returned her message.
"He came across as a well-adjusted, confident, happy-in-himself, courageous and brave young man," Miller said. "I felt that story would change so many families across Canada, particularly because so many young boys are expected to grow up playing with a hockey stick and make their dads happy."
Brendan Burke, a member of the Dean's List at Miami University in Ohio, and a student manager for the school's top-ranked hockey team, was killed in a two-car collision on Friday. He was 21.
According to police in Wayne County, Ind., Burke died after the 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee he was driving slid on a snow-covered highway not far from the Ohio border. The vehicle collided with a truck heading the other way, killing Burke and his passenger, 18-year-old Mark Reedy.
The driver of the truck was not injured.
Burke was on his way back from a visit to Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., and was expected back on his school's campus by 4 p.m. The accident occurred just before 3 p.m.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman issued a new release in which he described Brendan Burke as "a young man of courage and character. Words simply cannot express our sorrow over his loss."
Members of the Leafs were informed just before their flight departed New Jersey following a game on Friday night. A handful spoke with reporters following a pre-game skate Saturday.
"It's the worst news you could ever receive," forward Christian Hanson said. "I don't think there's anything that can be worse than losing a family member."
Burke was a senior majoring in political science, and a popular student involved in several different facets of university life. He made the Dean's List last year, and was also a "College Ambassador," student volunteers who help incoming students and parents.
He was also a long-serving member of the team's top-ranked hockey team, known as the RedHawks. Burke, a former goaltender, helped break down film for the team, and charted statistics for the goalies.
The team was told as it left the ice following its game Friday.
"There were a lot of tears shed," said Jim Stephan, assistant media relations director in the school's athletic department. "I really feel like they lost a teammate. Burkie, to them, was not just a student manager, or somebody who was around the locker room. He was a real friend to them."
Stephan said the accident occurred an hour north of campus.
"You never think, 'that's going to happen to me,"' veteran Toronto defenceman Francois Beauchemin said. "But when it happens to somebody really close, like Brian, you kind of do think about it. It can happen any time, and it's really tough."
Beauchemin, who played for Burke in Anaheim and remembers celebrating their Stanley Cup win at a gathering with Brendan three years ago, said a moment of silence would be held before Saturday night's home game against the Ottawa Senators.
Brendan Burke generated headlines across the continent after the ESPN.com article. He appeared on the front page of the Miami newspaper, The Miami Student, saying he had received overwhelming support.
And that support was never stronger than it was at home.
"I had a million good reasons to love and admire Brendan," Brian Burke said in the story. "This news didn't alter any of them."
Father and son discussed the news during a joint appearance on TSN last year. Brendan Burke said that, while it was initially nerve-wracking to come out to his father, he knew he would find support.
"I was surprised, but Brendan's a wonderful kid," Brian Burke said in the interview. "He's been a joy since the day he came home from the hospital, and I support him. I'm very proud of him."
Burke said he told his son he loved him.
"He's supported me with everything I've done in the past," Brendan Burke said during the interview. "I knew he would support me on this, too, and it really meant a lot. My whole family has been there for me, and been behind me 100 per cent."
Both men said the positive feedback overwhelmed any of the negative they might have received.
"Pioneers are often misunderstood," Brian Burke told TSN. "You don't wish this on your son, you wish that someone else carries that burden first, and then he can grab it and help. But this is what he wanted to do, and we support him."
Leafs goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere played for Burke in Anaheim, and knew his son.
"It's really sad," Giguere said. "I don't think we can even comprehend what Burkie is going through at this point. I think, right now, it's best to just let him grieve and make sure that we do our job here at the rink to make sure he doesn't have to worry about that."