A year after his death, Brendan Burke’s legacy widens

Editor’s note: On Friday’s telecast of Michigan at Miami, CBS College Sports will air a special feature paying tribute to the late Brendan Burke. In a piece written and produced by Alexis Arguello Jr. and Shireen Saski, the network will mark the one-year anniversary of his passing and the legacy he left behind. CBS College Sports analyst and USCHO national columnist Dave Starman read through the interviews they conducted and takes a look at how Burke’s life has made Miami even more unified in its support of who Brendan was and what he created in his short time in Oxford.

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On a remote patch of Indiana highway there is a small cross on the side of the road. It is white, one part is in the shape of a hockey stick, and it reads “BURKE.”

En route to their games in the Fort Wayne regional last season, the Miami RedHawks “Brotherhood” stopped there in memoriam to a fallen teammate, Brendan Burke, their student manager who died in car accident there a couple of months before.

There was still some debris from the accident on the ground but that could not compare with the mental mess that the RedHawks still endured in the aftermath of Brendan’s tragedy. What made it so hard for them was what Brendan was creating in his courageous admission to being gay and involved in what is considered a testosterone-laden world where homophobia still runs rampant due to either ignorance or stereotypes that have long since been discredited.

Brendan is gone but his memory is very much alive in the hockey world and outside of it. His legacy has reached far beyond the confines of a 200-by-85 rink in Oxford, Ohio.

“I always say, ‘Don’t judge because you don’t know,'” said Miami coach Enrico Blasi. “That’s probably the one thing hopefully Brendan has brought forth, that people can look at themselves and be comfortable with who they are and know that people will be comfortable with you if you are. It is almost like Brendan was put on this Earth for that message and it is like if this didn’t happen maybe people wouldn’t garner that much attention to it.”

Brendan Burke carried what many felt would be a huge burden. He was a gay male college student working in a culture where that lifestyle could make people very uncomfortable. The son of the president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and a high-profile personality in professional hockey, Brendan went about his life as many other college kids did but also knew one day he had to tell people who he really was.

The results of the admission, shared slowly with his teammates two years ago, were remarkable at Miami. With the way Blasi has created “The Brotherhood” in Oxford the impact and acceptance shouldn’t be that surprising. In announcing to his other family, the RedHawks players and staff, Burke entrusted a tight-knit group of friends with a life-altering announcement. Like a teammate who had to get something out to another teammate, he sat down with Pat Cannone for a discussion that wasn’t easy.

Like it goes with all groups of guys, it started with a simple question from Cannone to Burke following Miami’s 2009 regional final victory in Minneapolis that led them to the Frozen Four in Washington, D.C. Cannone and Burke were out afterwards and Cannone asked him if he had an eye on any special lady. At that point, Burke came out to Cannone. Soft spoken and possessing a deep sense of compassion for others, Burke couldn’t have picked a better kid to tell than Cannone.

“I was the first one on the team that he told. And, you know, he didn’t want it to become a distraction,” said Cannone, now a senior co-captain. “I didn’t have any judgment at all. I still looked at him the same. I was like, ‘Yeah, Burkie, I don’t care at all. I don’t care. You’re a great friend. You know, it’s no bearing on anything or how we feel about you.'”

What impacted Cannone most was that Burke went to him first, something Cannone is reluctant to mention as a badge of honor publicly but takes deep pride in privately.

Following his disclosure to Cannone the news slowly started to filter out to a couple of teammates like Justin Vaive and Tommy Wingels. Wingels and Vaive were roommates last season and Burke would come over most every Sunday to watch football. Vaive admits that when he found out, he was worried about how the news would be received outside the dressing room.

“During the time I definitely did have a little bit of fear for him just because it’s such a shocking thing,” said Vaive, also a senior. “In a sense of our team and our school, I knew that everybody would be supportive of him and everybody wanted him to share his story and kind of let everybody else know what he was going through.”

Blasi, in a conversation with Alexis Arguello Jr. of CBS College Sports, took a unique look at it when he found out. In a way, his reaction set the tone for much of the good that came out of Brendan’s decision later on.

“He asked me to go have coffee with him at one of my favorite places; I figured something was wrong,” said Blasi. “When he told me basically his secret I was like, ‘Thank goodness it’s nothing serious!'”

Blasi, who last season also was forced to deal with some personal family issues, was the perfect coach for this situation to make sure Burke knew this was not an issue within “The Brotherhood” but also not an issue in life.

“The way I approached it, I think it really kind of eased the moment for both of us,” Blasi said. “I told him I really didn’t care, and he was part of our family and that was his choice and it doesn’t change the way we feel about him. And I think that gave him an opportunity to tell the guys and I think the guys reacted in the same way.”

Burke carried on as always in his role as student manager. The RedHawks were dominating the league when that fateful day occurred as he and a friend headed back to Miami from Michigan. The Miami community was devastated. Like they did after the shocking loss to Boston University in the national title game the season before, the RedHawks picked up the pieces, regrouped from within and carried on. This time, they went ahead with Brendan in their thoughts, and a cause in their actions. What Brendan meant to them, what he had so bravely faced, what he and they had created in the hockey community in terms of acceptance of a gay teammate was too strong to let die along with Brendan.

“Simply put, our program is really about being the best you can be in all aspects of your life, and I think he defined that. He was a perfect example of that,” said Nick Petraglia, an assistant coach and the member of the staff that worked as closely with Brendan as anyone. “Great student, great person and he cared about everybody, so he had all of the values and morals that we try to live by in this program. He was a perfect example of it and he lived that every day.”

What lives is the legacy. When the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, Brent Sopel took the Cup to the Chicago Gay Pride Parade and marched in it with Lord Stanley to show his support for the gay and lesbian community.

“One of his biggest impacts on this program with what we went through and him coming out is he really opened our eyes to the language that we use and the types of words we use around the locker room. The gay slurs are, I think, a pretty common part of sports,” said Petraglia. “It is a pretty common part of the hockey culture and he changed that here. You won’t hear our guys use those words, and if you do, if it slips every once in awhile there’s always someone that says, ‘Hey, don’t say that.’ We think about him every day. We still miss him. There’s no question.”

Miami will honor Brendan with the Burke family in attendance this weekend. On Saturday they will wear special sweaters in Brendan’s honor.

“We wanted to do something,” Blasi said. “The Burke family created a scholarship here at Miami in Brendan’s name and we wanted to do our part. Feb. 5 is going be a tough day but making sure that we respect Brendan for who he was and what he meant to us is very important. I asked Brian Burke and his family [about the special sweaters] and they thought it would be a great idea. The jerseys are going to look great and we’re going to raise some money by auctioning off the jerseys for his scholarship.

“We’ll all be together, which will be very important and hopefully we can get through it and then continue to push his message forward. That’s what Brendan would want and that’s what the family wants. They want to make sure that everybody gets on with what they need to do. Hopefully we can do that and always keep Brendan in our hearts.”