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Brian Burke: 'My team needs me to be strong'

by John Dellapina
VANCOUVER -- Brian Burke was in rare form. And then, he was in the form that few ever see. Few, that is, other than the sons and daughters he fiercely loves, the ones he flew across the continent to spend time with twice a month, every month, for a decade -- no matter how much it physically punished a man who already was driving himself, 24/7, to build a powerhouse team in Vancouver and then a Stanley Cup-winner in Anaheim.

Burke lost one of those children on Feb. 5, when his 21-year-old son Brendan was killed along with a friend, Mark Reedy, in an automobile accident on a snowy road in Indiana. Brendan's wake was Monday and the Burkes buried him Tuesday -- more than a thousand mourners from his Miami (Ohio) University family and the NHL family in attendance to say goodbye to a special young man.

Brian Burke was back on the job, his NHL job as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Friday night in St. Louis. He was on the job, his USA Hockey job as GM of the U.S. men's Olympic team, Sunday afternoon on the Vancouver waterfront -- on a dais with head coach Ron Wilson and four of the early-arriving Team USA players for a media availability.

Not because the pain of losing his son had at all subsided, but because everything he had ever taught his son about responsibility and commitment left him no choice.

"My family needs me to be strong right now and my teams need me to be strong -- Toronto and this team," Burke said. "So I think part of leadership is dealing with personal adversity or personal difficulty. So no, there was never a thought of not coming or doing anything different. The one change I made was that I didn't feel like marching in the Opening Ceremonies (Friday night). But my son would have wanted me to be here."

Reporters who have been regaled by and reveled in Burke's bluster for years -- and were again Sunday when he unleashed his "A" material upon the room in his continuing quest to heap withering pressure on tournament favorites Canada and Russia -- waited until the formal part of the press conference had ended and more intimate interview groups formed before broaching the subject of Brendan's death.

That was when Brian Burke stopped breaking up the room by telling half-jokes about how the Canadians face pressure that is "glacial, unremitting and unrelenting; I can't imagine how they're going to function in this environment," and choked up himself.

"I cry less every day," he whispered, tears welling in his eyes. "It's been … it's been tough.

"I just think about him. He would have wanted me to do this."

Somebody asked Brian Burke if, for those who never knew him, he could describe his son.

"He was a courageous kid -- a very gregarious kid, a very compassionate kid," Brian Burke said of the son who bravely revealed to his family that he was gay in 2007 -- and then was instantly and unconditionally supported by the father who is renowned for being one of hockey's unapologetic tough guys. "He was very bright and cared a lot about people. The saddest part about it was that his future was so bright. The sky was the limit for this kid."

Brendan Burke was pursuing that future when he died -- following in the footsteps of his father, a Harvard-trained attorney, by making a trip to one of the several law schools (Michigan State) to which he had applied.  Truth be told, though, there were some footsteps in which the father didn't believe his son could follow.

Asked if Brendan would have made a good general manager, Brian Burke replied: "I'm not sure. You've gotta have a bit of a … this is a family show… you've got to be able to make hard decisions. Sending guys down, trading guys. You've got to have a side where you're able to put feelings aside and say: ‘This guy just had a baby, but I've gotta make this trade.' Or, ‘This guy is sick but I've gotta do this.'

Team USA Gear"You've got to have a little callus on your heart to do this job. And Patrick, my oldest son has that side. I'm not sure Brendan did -- to his credit."

Hardly anybody who has ever played for Brian Burke, negotiated a contract with him or made a trade with him would deny that he possesses that necessary hardness. Anybody who was around him yesterday saw a different side.

The man he chose to captain Team USA, Jamie Langenbrunner of the New Jersey Devils, marveled at what he witnessed yesterday.

"Understand? No," Langenbrunner said. "I have three young kids myself and I can't imagine. It's not something that you wish on anyone and to have to deal with it, it's beyond words. It shows the strength of him and I don't know how to say this, but it shows his belief in us as a team that he is able to even be here, really.

"It could have been really easy for him to walk away and just take some time, which I don't think anybody would have second-guessed. I think, for us, we want to make sure we give him something to be proud of."

For Brian Burke's part, he's just trying to continue to make Brendan proud -- and the brother and sisters, Katie and Molly, his son left behind.

"We're putting one foot in front of the other, that's what we're doing," Burke said, his eyes moistening again.  "I was asked to do a job here and I'm going to do it. The fact that I've had a tragic event in my life shouldn't change that. USA Hockey asked me to do a job and I'm going to do it."

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