This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 11, 2010

Of Gays and Girls

Last week, the college hockey world lost a friend and pioneer. His youth — 21 years — doesn’t diminish what he did with one brave act.

Brendan Burke, son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and student assistant for the Miami hockey program, died Friday, Feb. 5, in a car crash in snowy conditions on the Hoosier side near the Indiana-Ohio border. His 18-year-old friend, Mark Reedy, also died in the crash. Reedy, a Bloomfield Hills, Mich., native, was a freshman at Michigan State.

Highway deaths are “so randomly bad,” e-mailed a long-time CCHA fan following the news. So random. So unfair.

By now, you’ve probably heard the story of what made Brendan a true ground-breaker in male athletics. In an article
originally published Nov. 24, 2009, Brendan revealed that he was gay. I have friends who have told me that coming out to their own families and friends was the hardest thing they had ever had to do; I cannot imagine the courage it took for Brendan to tell the world — to tell the straight-male-identified sporting world — that he was gay.

The original article, written by John Buccigross, tells much of Brendan’s story and rightly discusses how difficult it was for this young man to tell his father, brothers, and everyone associated with the Miami hockey program, including young men his own age whom he feared would treat him differently.

In the end, his revelation didn’t make any difference to the people who loved Brendan. He came from a loving family. He had found very good people in Oxford, Ohio.

I can’t eulogize Brendan Burke here. I didn’t know him. I do know the Miami hockey program, though, and I know what I’ve seen in the aftermath of Brendan Burke’s death.

Clearly, Brendan taught the young men who play RedHawk hockey many lessons they will never forget, many that you and I will never know that have to do with him just being Brendan Burke, the incredibly likable, smart young man who managed the RedHawk team.

Brendan taught the team a specific lesson when he came out in November, one that is often difficult for young men — especially those in sports — to learn. It’s not OK to call each other “fag” in the locker room. It’s not OK to use “gay” as a slur. That young men (and probably not-so-young men) are expected to do this in locker rooms on a regular basis, expected to engage in banter that is considered emasculating, is what Brendan Burke said solidified his decision to stop playing hockey in his senior year of high school.

In November, Brendan taught these young men of the Miami hockey program that manning up, so to speak, has more to do with just one’s sexual orientation.

Last week, Brendan taught these young men about mortality and the transient nature of life. This week, Brendan taught them that manning up sometimes means breaking down. The RedHawks wore their jerseys to Brendan Burke’s funeral mass at St. John the Evangelist Church in Canton, Mass.

After the mass, they exited the church, weeping.

The message that Brendan Burke was trying to send by telling his personal story was a powerful one, but even the most powerful messages take some time to be heard, to be fully comprehended. In eulogizing Brendan, Buccigross talked about how instantly likable Burke was. “People liked Brendan 10 seconds after meeting him,” wrote Buccigross. “His wasn’t a flamboyant or self-serving gallop.”

Perhaps Buccigross, whose sexuality is no business of mine, is unaware of the connotations of the word “flamboyant” in this context. Perhaps Buccigross was taking into consideration his largely heterosexual male audience.

Brendan Burke was not flamboyant. In other words, he was an acceptable kind of gay.

The majority of stories following Brendan’s death focus on his homosexuality. This one is no exception. Because of his famous father, Brendan Burke’s death would have received a lot of attention anyway, but it’s only because of his coming out in November — a courageous act that shouldn’t even be news, according to Brian Burke himself — that there are thousands of stories related to this genuine tragedy.

It’s not just a man’s world, but a straight man’s world. That’s another part of Brendan Burke’s message, however unintentional. There will come a day when an openly gay professional male athlete won’t shock us, but at this point, an openly gay young man who works with male NCAA student-athletes is big news.

Even after the world ended, momentarily, for the Burke family and everyone who loved Brendan, there was college hockey still to be played. Last Saturday, they played it outdoors in Madison, Wis. Before the Wolverine men took the ice to lose to the Badgers, 3-2, in the second game of the day, the Wisconsin women routed Bemidji State, 6-1.

Something Darby Hendrickson said in the Big Ten Network’s “Opening Face-Off” show struck me in the same way that Buccigross’ use of the word “flamboyant” did. Bear with me, please. The connection may seem tenuous to you, but in the bigger picture, I can’t help but see it.

Hendrickson, a former Golden Gophers skater who played a decade in the NHL, talked about the ice and how “guys adjust to their skate-sharpening, how they feel out there.” He made mention of a feature that the Big Ten Network had just shown about creating the ice for this outdoor game and the importance of seasoning the ice so that it was game ready.

An integral part of that process, at least to Hendrickson, was the game played by “the girls” before the main event.

“The girls played tonight before the game, the Badgers and Bemidji State,” said Hendrickson, “so that’s a good thing that will get the ice ready.”

Ready for the guys, of course.

I am in no way equating the loss of Brendan Burke with a verbal slight made by a hockey announcer. What strikes me this week, though, is the casualness with which entire groups of people can be slighted.

Brendan Burke wasn’t flamboyant. The Badgers and Beavers were girls who played a hockey game to prepare the ice surface for the guys.

That the slights were unintentional — Buccigross was complimenting Brendan Burke, and I doubt that Hendrickson understood the message he was relaying — is even more disheartening in the 21st century.

To paraphrase Brian Burke, someday this won’t even be a story.

I am saddened, however, by the knowledge that Brendan Burke won’t be around to see that day.

And They’re Still Playing Hockey

With just one point or with a Ferris State loss, Miami will claim the regular-season CCHA title. The RedHawks and third-place Bulldogs have two games in hand on second-place Michigan State.

The RedHawks continued their dominance in CCHA play last weekend by shutting out Lake Superior State, 2-0, Friday before positively thumping the Lakers Saturday, 10-4.

With the wins, Miami is 17-1-4 in league play this season and now unbeaten in 20 consecutive conference games (16-0-4), dating to that sole loss to Michigan State Oct. 24.

In the 2-0 win, sophomore Cody Reichard recorded his fifth shutout, a new school single-season record — particularly impressive when you consider that Reichard has shared some time in net this season with classmate Connor Knapp. The previous record was set by David Burleigh in 2002-03; Burleigh’s fourth shutout of that season came in his 37th game played, while Reichard’s fifth came in his 16th this year.

In the 10-4 game, nine different RedHawks scored. Andy Miele scored twice.

So as the regular-season championship is all but over, the most interesting hockey left to be played is in the middle — where it is nearly every year, regardless of which teams are in the mix.

I will not go through all the possible permutations of final standings here (“Math class is tough!” said Barbie), but I will give my predicted order of finish … even though I know I’ll be completely wrong and that I’m opening myself up to even more ridicule, especially from Alaska fans, whose disgust with me this season borders on that of the fans of their soon-to-be-gone travel partner.

1. Miami. Duh. The RedHawks need a point. It’s not only statistically safe, but Miami has demonstrated near-complete dominance of the league and has shown that it may be the only team competitive at the national level this year.

2. Michigan State. I actually think this is a risky pick, given that Ferris State has two games in hand on MSU. The Spartans are idle this weekend, but MSU and FSU go head-to-head, home-and-home Feb. 19-20. That’s where I think the Spartans will prevail.

3. Michigan. This is a team that I thought wouldn’t make the NCAA tournament this year based on first-half play — and I was dumb enough to say so on the radio at some point. Currently in fourth place, three points behind Ferris State, Michigan has one more win than does FSU (league wins being the first tiebreaker) with the same number of games as do the Bulldogs. It’s an even riskier pick because UM’s remaining schedule is very tough: Nebraska-Omaha, Northern, Notre Dame. Still, I think Red Berenson possesses some kind of magic. I can’t bet against UM as long as he’s at the helm.

4. Ferris State. With a five-point lead and two games-in-hand over both fifth-place teams, I think the Bulldogs will finish fourth and sit out the first round of the CCHA playoffs.

5. Alaska. The Nanooks have four conference games left, two on the road against Ohio State and two at home against Lake Superior. They are tough at home (6-3-5) and play those last home games the weekend before everyone else concludes. That will test their maturity, whether they can determine as much of their own fate as possible in what is the second-to-last weekend of regular-season play for everyone else.

6. Northern Michigan. The Wildcats are 2-0-2 in the last four, against teams ahead of them in the standings. NMU has two games in hand over both UAF and UNO, who are tied for fifth, and the Wildcats are just two points behind the Nanooks and Mavericks.

7. Nebraska-Omaha. Another risky (and therefore probably incorrect) pick, as the Mavericks are two points ahead of NMU, tied with UAF in fifth place, and have two more wins than do either the Nanooks or the Wildcats. UNO, however, finishes its last regular-season CCHA calendar with two home games against Michigan and two on the road versus Miami. The Mavs could lose out, which is unlikely. They could win out, which is unlikelier.

8. Lake Superior State. The Lakers get the last spot for home ice in the first round of the CCHA playoffs by virtue of their wins; they have one more than Notre Dame, with whom they are tied in the standings. They also have two games in hand over the Irish.

9. Notre Dame. The Irish top the bottom tier — how this happened this season, given that I picked them to finish first (and I wasn’t alone), is beyond me. Currently tied with LSSU, Notre Dame plays two games in Bowling Green before a home-and-home series against Michigan to end the season. The Irish and Wolverines did split earlier this year, but that was to end the first half of the season. ND is 3-5-2 in conference play in the second half, UM 7-3-1.

10. Ohio State. I’ve seen some life out of the Buckeyes in the second half, but OSU’s last two games of the regular season are against Miami. For those of you keeping score at home, I picked OSU to finish fourth this season.

11. Western Michigan. Another team better than its record, the Broncos finish 11th in my standings because Bowling Green faces Miami, Notre Dame and Michigan State to end the year. WMU is one point ahead of BGSU in the standings, and the Broncos have one more win than do the Falcons.

12. Bowling Green. If BG finishes in last place and UAF in fifth, at least the Falcons know that they can beat the Nanooks, as they did so at home Nov. 11.

And It’s Valentine’s Day

Yes, I know that I usually provide a Valentine’s Day column about this time every year, another of my poor attempts at humor and another reason for legions of readers to beg me to step away from the computer for good.

This week, my heart isn’t in it. And for once, I’m not delivering another bad pun.


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