|Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke speaks to the media for the first time since the death of his 21-year-old Brendan on Friday, Feb. 12 before the game between the Maple Leafs and the St. Louis Blues in St. Louis.(AP Photo/Tom Gannam)
ST. LOUIS — Hard as it was for Brian Burke to express grief in public for the first time on Friday night, being back in his element, a room full of hockey media talking trades and Olympic hockey, was the release he needed.
Tears welling, Burke first struggled through some prepared remarks about how life had changed so traumatically a week earlier when he was reached at a junior game in London by eldest son Patrick and told 21-year-old Brendan and a passenger were killed on a snow-covered Indiana highway.
“I got the call you never want to get,” a shuddering Burke said.
But as he spoke of the support the hockey community gave his family, from the Maple Leafs, to Gary Bettman to e-mails from ex-players in Europe and complete strangers, and continuing his son’s message that gays should not fear being shunned from the game, Burke said it was “time to move forward...as Brendan would have wanted.
“It’s not supposed to be this way. Your kids are supposed to bury you. It was compounded by the fact that Brendan was a special kid, that another wonderful young man, (18-year-old) Mark Reedy was involved and that it was a sudden death with no chance to say goodbye.
“To be 21 and have blazed a trail...he had a huge heart, a great future. The step he took was going very public with the fact he was gay and that it’s very acceptable in the hockey world. I think that’s a wall that needs to be broken down and that’s what I pledge to keep working towards, that this game should be open to anyone and everyone be welcome to play it.
“I don’t think my grief will ever end. I think part of my heart was ripped out. But it’s time to engage again.”
Burke had already declined to march in the opening ceremonies in Vancouver on behalf of Team USA, believing his place was with his players, prior to their 4-0 loss here to the Blues. He addressed them before they scattered for the Olympic break, thanking them for flying en masse to Brendan’s funeral in Canton, Mass., on Tuesday.
Prior to Friday’s 3 p.m. EST Olympic roster freeze, Burke was back in touch with the front office men who ran the team and worked the phones in his absence, senior vice-president Dave Nonis, VP Dave Poulin and senior advisor Cliff Fletcher.
Deals for draft picks and players were discussed, Leafs’ upcoming UFA’s Alexei Ponikarovsky, Lee Stempniak and Wayne Primeau were beleived to be in play, but nothing came to fruition.
“We turned over a lot of stones the past couple of days,” Burke said. “We didn’t get anything that made sense, buying or selling. We’re going to wait and see if we can drive harder bargains after the Olympics, after (Feb.) 28th, leading up to March 3.”
On Saturday, Burke and coach Ron Wilson will switch to their Team USA hats. But first there was another defence of the GM’s choices for the American side, which is a younger group than past assemblages.
“There were some really gut-wrenching decisions leaving some guys off, but it’s time to turn the page,” Burke said. “We’re taking a group we think is multi-faceted. Running a hockey team is a lot like putting together an orchestra, you need first violins, french horns, percussion and someone to move the stage when you’re done.”
But no one in blue and white was in tune last night, as the Blues scored a pair of second-period short-handed goals, one of them sweet revenge by ex-Leaf Alex Steen.
Francois Beauchemin pinched on the first St. Louis goal, leading to a 3-1 where Jean-Sebastien Giguere made the first save, but Andy McDonald had the rebound. John Mitchell, who has been in Wilson’s doghouse for defensive play of late, was victimized on T.J. Oshie’s goal, the play ending with a helpless Giguere out of the net and his back to the play. B.J. Crombeen scored in the third
Clearly, the Leafs heads were already on vacation or with their various national squads in Vancouver, despite pre-game vows not to look ahead. Toronto once talked of a second-half surge but has yet to reach 50 points.