There’s a palpable shift in Patrick Burke’s tone when he speaks of his younger brother Brendan. The articulate, confident New England law student and Philadelphia Flyers scout becomes slightly subdued. Gentle, even.
But Burke, 30, is far from the business of gentle. He handpicks players for a National Hockey League team with a legacy of aggression — the Flyers were notoriously dubbed the Broad Street Bullies during their heyday in the early 1970s. He aspires to be the General Manager of an NHL team. His brusque and red-blooded father, Brian, was GM of three teams in his career. Burke knows first-hand the resilience and grit it takes to manage a professional sports team.
Burke calls Brendan his best friend. But his best friend is gone. Twenty-one-year-old Brendan passed away in a car accident on February 5, 2010.
Just three months before his death, Brendan came out to the world as gay in an intensely public way.
At the time, his dad was GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the most historic franchises in the NHL. Toronto is relentlessly scrutinized by media and followed with diehard passion by its fan base. But instead of hiding from the swarm and speculation that would inevitably follow his father’s high profile, Brendan bravely faced the world with his secret.
He put his story into the hands of ESPN hockey personality John Buccigross in December 2009, who wrote a first-person reflection of Brendan’s coming out to his family.
“Patrick approached me about it and I certainly [knew] the reach of ESPN would benefit Brendan’s message,” Buccigross remembered. “I knew it would be a big deal in Canada since Brian Burke was the GM of Toronto but the impact was a little bigger than I thought.”
Brendan’s coming out sent a jolt through the hyper-masculine hockey world, a sport where there are more gay slurs on the ice than natural front teeth. He’s often considered the first person with such close ties to the NHL to publicly identify as LGBT.