It was comforting to watch Burke on the dais alongside head coach Ron Wilson and four Team USA players as they held their first press conference of the Games. For close to an hour Sunday in a room off the glorious waterfront, Burke talked shop with fellow hockey lovers, and it made him smile, especially when he got to tweak the Canadians, and maybe for a nano-second it made him forget.
Five days ago, Burke buried his 21-year-old son Brendan, who was killed in an automobile accident on a snowy Indiana road Feb. 5. If Burke had any qualms about fulfilling his Olympic duties, they were shushed when he looked around at his son's funeral and saw thousands of mourners, many of them from the tight-knit hockey brotherhood, guys he had played with in college and scouts and broadcasters and general managers from nearly every NHL team -- they had come from all corners of the world to say goodbye to an extraordinary young man.
"My family needs me to be strong and my team needs to be strong. I think part of leadership is dealing with personal adversity or personal difficulty," Burke said. "So no, there was never a thought of not coming (here) or doing anything different. I couldn't bring myself to march in the Opening Ceremony even though I'd planned to because my heart wasn't in it. I would have been an impostor. But my son would have wanted me to be here."
A short time earlier, when he was flanked by his hockey family, there had been a twinkle in his eyes and an impish grin scrawled across his face as he pondered the brutally suffocating pressure the Canadians face. "Which I might mention in passing I think is glacial and unremitting and unrelenting. I can't imagine how they are going to function in this environment, but they'll find a way, I'm sure," Burke had said, cracking up the room and shifting attention away from his pain. He was on a roll, telling anecdotal tales about the never-ending feedback he's heard from fans who think they know more than the man who revived an ailing franchise in Vancouver, was the architect of a Stanley Cup-winner in Anaheim and is now GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"We've been criticized just about every place I go (with fans saying), 'Why's this guy not on the team? Why's that guy not on the team?'" Burke said. "It's a small wedding folks. Just 23 chairs at the table. That's it. We have more talented United States players than we've ever had."
He could sense there were skeptics in the midst. Burke turned on them like a thirsty bloodhound ready to pounce on small rodents. "Look around, you all cover hockey, write down and put in a hat like Survivor who is going to win," he growled. Reporters were ordered to raise their hands if they thought the U.S. would take gold. Only a few did. This was Burke at his happiest, knocking back challengers.
"I don't know who's taking bets on this tournament, but I assume there's a book somewhere, and if you look, the money's going to be on Canada," he said. "There will be a lot of pressure on the Russians too ... and to a lesser extent on Sweden. Nobody's talking about our ability to win here except us, and that's fine with us. The fact is we are not trying to play a card. We are the underdog."
Burke was in fine form, master of the verbal slapshots as long as the topic stayed within the hockey boards. But when the formal portion of the press conference was complete, when we moved off to a side and switched the conversation from whether guys who play for the New Jersey Devils understand it's fine to forecheck in these Games to a universal subject -- a father's love for his son -- Burke stumbled to find the right words.
"It's been ... it's been tough," Burke said. "I just think about him. He would have wanted me to do this."
Brendan (pictured), a senior at Miami (Ohio) University, was in the midst of exploring law schools -- he had applied to 15 or so, and had just visited Michigan State -- when the car he was driving slid on a treacherous, icy road and hit an oncoming truck. Brendan's friend, Mark Reedy, also died in the crash.
"He was a courageous kid, a very gregarious kid, a very compassionate kid. Very bright and he cared a lot about people," Burke said of his son. "The saddest part of it was that his future was so great."
Brendan was many things: a brilliant student, a former goalie, wicked funny and as kind and loving as his father is gruff and tough. Burke told us how when Brendan was born -- in a Vancouver hospital, when his father was just beginning what would be an extraordinary career in hockey management -- he came into the world and instantly everyone knew the boy was special.
"Born on December 8, 1988, eight pounds, eight ounces. Eight is a lucky number for people of Chinese descent," Burke said, his face aglow. "They kept rubbing his head, the nurses did. I said to one of the nurses, 'What's the deal?' and she said, 'Oh, he's a very lucky baby.' I said, 'Well, rub his foot because he's going to be bald for Christ's sake.'
"He was born with a lot of lucky signs around him," Burke said. "Just a magnetic personality even as a kid."
At Brendan's wake in Canton, Massachusetts, amongst the hundreds of mourners, Burke ran into one of his son's teachers. Everyone had their favorite story about Brendan; he had impacted so many people in so many different ways, and it warmed Burke's heart to hear them all. This teacher told him about an eighth grade dance, and a girl standing alone in the corner. Brendan walked over and asked her to dance, oblivious to (or maybe in spite of) his classmates' snickers.
"He didn't care what they thought, he just didn't want her to have a bad night," Burke said, beaming like a father boasting about a son who had won several Stanley Cups.
There was another thing about Brendan, and it matters because homophobia still exists, because ignorant slurs are considered trash talk, because there are still too many stories about boys like Brendan being forced to hide their true selves in the macho world of sports. Brendan was gay, a fact he revealed to his family in 2007. He was instantly assured of their unconditional love and support and, as John Buccigross so poignantly detailed in an ESPN.com story about Brendan coming out, the father and son hugged and then they sat "for about 15 more minutes watching hockey."
After the microphones and cameras were gone Sunday, I asked Burke about the hockey brotherhood's reaction to Brendan's decision to go public with his sexuality. Though his family and some of his friends on the Miami (O.) hockey team knew and didn't care (Brendan was a student manager in charge of tracking goalie statistics and preparing highlight videos, perfect training for what he hoped would be a career in hockey management), the news presumably had a different effect in the macho locker rooms.
Brendan came out to Buccigross in a story that ran in early December; two months later Brendan was dead. The extraordinary events that took place in the few weeks between the time Brendan decided to share his secret with the world and the moment he left the world just might change what we think we know about sports, and the machismo men who rule the roosts.
"There was nothing heroic about my reaction to Brendan coming out, I want to make that clear," Burke told me. "I did what a parent is supposed to do -- your love for your children should be unconditional.
"But," he said, and his eyes began shining again, "the response I got from the hockey community about Brendan being gay was overwhelmingly supportive. I saved all the emails I got after the article came out, a stack of them about this high" -- he put his hands about half a foot apart -- "there were maybe 200 of them from former players and current players and (executives), all walks of hockey.
"I was going to put them in a book and give them to Brendan at his graduation," he said, as both of our eyes grew teary. "The message from the hockey community was that this was a wall that didn't need to be there. If it took one young man's courage to kick that door open, then let's make sure it stays open. I'm very proud of the role Brendan played in that, and I pledged to him that message won't get lost."
Don't know about you, but this hockey lover is going to view these Games in a whole new way.