From the Air Canada Centre to the campus at Miami of Ohio to USA Hockey’s office in Colorado Springs came an outpouring of grief all day Saturday for the Burke family.
Brendan Burke, the 21-year-old son of the Maple Leafs/Team USA general manager Brian, and an 18-year-old male passenger were killed late Friday afternoon in a crash amid hazardous road conditions in Wayne County, Indiana, trying to make it back for the Miami RedHawks home game against Lake Superior State. Brendan was a video assistant and a student manager for the NCAA’s top-ranked team.
Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. was getting Burke on a private plane to be flown to his son on Saturday morning. Players, front office staff and hockey department officials were in shock at the club’s optional morning skate and a moment of silence is planned prior to the 7 p.m. game against the Ottawa Senators. Leaf players found out as they boarded their plane home from a 4-3 loss in New Jersey on Friday night.
“This is not the way (life) is supposed to go,” said goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who knew Brendan when Brian was GM of the Anaheim Ducks in the 2007 Stanley Cup year. “You never expect this. It’s really sad. I can’t comprehend what he’s going through. It’s best to let Brian breathe right now and do our job at the rink.
“I met Brendan a couple of times, a good kid.”
Brendan had been visiting Michigan State University in East Lansing earlier in the day, believed to be checking into taking a future graduate law program or accompanying his passenger, Mark Reedy, to an appointment there.
He was expected back in the Hawks office on the Oxford, Ohio campus, about 4 p.m. to begin breaking down video for upcoming opponents and to sit in the press box during the game against Lake Superior to chart shots on goal. Brendan had hoped to follow Brian into the sports management field.
“They would have been just an hour away from making it back,” said Jim Stephan, the Hawks’ media relations manager. “But we had heard the roads were bad.”
Police report that the Jeep Burke was driving lost control in the snow and hit an oncoming vehicle in the opposite lane of U.S. Highway 35. The driver of the second vehicle was not hurt.
Brian Burke found out the tragic news in the middle of the London Knights - Plymouth Whalers game where he was scouting Leafs’ top pick Nazem Kadri, among others. As Burke rushed back to Toronto, a Leaf official then contacted former captain Rick Vaive, who was watching his son Justin playing for Miami. The sad news was then relayed between periods to coach Enrico Blasi, who was a guest instructor for the Leafs at their 2009 training camp.
“The guys were really excited at winning 2-0, our 19th straight, but what was our coach supposed to do but tell them what happened,” Stephan said. “It was a surreal scene. The guys are devastated. Brendan was not just a support guy or a helper, he was like a teammate. It’s being felt right across the school (a public university campus of about 16,000 students).
“We’re talking about having a moment of silence at our game (Saturday night against Lake Superior again) and flying the team to wherever the funeral is going to be, but right now, we’re leaving that all up to Brian.”
Students had already set up Facebook pages to honour Brendan’s memory.
Burke’s Leaf duties are sure to be covered the next few days by senior vice-president of hockey operations David Nonis, vice-president Dave Poulin and senior advisor Cliff Fletcher, while Team USA officials are set to give support if requested.
“This is news you just can’t prepare for,” said Dave Fischer, senior director of communications. “I’m sure Dave Ongrean (executive director) will be chatting with him when he’s ready or in contact by e-mail.
“We’ll wait to hear whether Brian wants to continue with plans to be at the opening ceremonies in Vancouver (he was to march in the U.S. delegation). Knowing him, he might want to throw himself into working, but we’ll wait for his decision.”
Brendan and Brian had made headlines in November when Brendan revealed to espn.com that he’d told his famous father that he was gay. Brendan’s bravery and Brian’s vocal support for his youngest son touched many people.
“The NHL grieves for the family and friends of Brendan Burke, a young man of courage and character,” commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “Words simply can’t express our sorrow over his loss. We send our deepest most heartfelt condolences to Brian, his mother Kerry, everyone in Brendan’s family and all who were inspired by his love for hockey.”
Brendan is Burke’s youngest son by his first marraige. He has six children in all.
Fischer said most of Brian Burke’s Olympic duties have been fulfilled, other than filling the roster with last minute injuries, though American-based NHL GMs such as David Poile can help in needed.