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Strong Ties Carry Redhawk Brotherhood After Brendan Burke's Death

Feb 18, 2010 – 11:38 AM
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Pat McManamon

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Miami (O.) team leaves Brendan Burke's funeral
They press on, because that is what they are supposed to do. Press on, try to remember the many good things while putting the pain in a manageable mental compartment.

Brendan Burke is not with the Miami (Oh.) top-ranked hockey team any longer, but the team does not feel he has left it, so it presses on toward its goal of winning a national championship.

"That's the way Brendan would want it,'' coach Enrico Blasi told FanHouse Wednesday. "We know, and the family knows, that Brendan is along for the ride."

Blasi said he isn't so sure Burke hasn't already helped his team -- the winning score in a game against Bowling Green on Feb. 12 hit the goaltender's pad, bounced up in the air and into the goal.

"That's a pretty interesting bounce," Blasi said.

These stories always have the danger to cross the line, from mourning a loss to being so overly dramatic that it trivializes what happened. A young man's life can't compare to a hockey game or score or goal. Life only pauses for tragedies; it does not stop. Teachers teach, chefs cook, U2 continues to put on concerts, and sports teams compete.

At Miami, the hockey team continues to play -- while dealing with immeasurable loss.

That is what the Redhawks have done since the sudden death of their team manager on Feb. 5. Burke was loved by a group that prides itself on its closeness.

"They lost a teammate," Miami Assistant Media Relations Director Jim Stephan said. "They really lost a teammate."

Brendan Burke was the guy who helped break down film for coaches. He helped the staff prepare for games. He always got coffee for the coaches before games, and he did so many other small acts of kindness for the team.

"He did so much behind the scenes that no one knew about,'' Tommy Wingels, the team's captain, said. "Other than us 27 guys, people just don't know how much he did for us. He was in the locker room every day, with the coaches every day. He made so many friendships."

Brendan BurkeHe also was gay, coming out to his family two years ago and his teammates last spring. That reality served to do what Burke did with many -- open doors and eyes that the person matters, not labels.

His brother Patrick spoke at his funeral and said he "lived in a world without walls, without limits and boundaries. He was the roommate to the musical theater group, and the teammate to the star athletes,"

"His persona was one of sheer joy," Blasi said. "Everywhere he went, he could start a conversation with anybody. He always wanted to do things with and for other people.

"He was a remarkable young man."

Burke's story was known before now, but the Olympics brought it greater light. He is the son of Brian Burke, the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the man in charge of the U.S. team in Vancouver.

On Feb. 5, Brendan Burke was driving a car back from East Lansing, Mich., where he had visited Michigan State's law school. He was en route to Miami's game against Lake Superior State in Oxford, Ohio. The car slid on an icy road and crashed into a truck.

Burke and a passenger in the car, Mark Reedy, were killed.

Blasi learned of the tragedy between the second and third periods of the game. He told his staff, but did not tell the team until the game ended. That third period remains a blur.

"The entire staff was pretty stoic," Blasi said. "It was a close game ... 1-0 until we had an empty-netter. I just wanted to make sure I called the right lines out."

Miami hockey prides itself on being a "brotherhood," a collection of young men that is more than just a sports team. Blasi called it a "culture" he tried to establish when he joined Miami 11 years ago, a culture that has continued to grow and evolve.

Miami players bond. They look out for each other. As much attention is focused on behavior and accountability as winning games. Players consider all their relationships important.

"He was part of the staff as far as preparing the team," Blasi said of Burke. "And he was part of the team as far being with them and one of them."

"A huge part of the team," Wingels said.

Blasi told the team about the accident after the game. He spoke from the heart, because that's the only way to handle this kind of tragedy. He spoke to the hearts of young adults who were learning a difficult life lesson at too young an age.

"It was probably the most difficult thing I've ever done. I was talking with one of my mentors, and I told him: 'You didn't teach me this one.' Thank God. It's not something you ever want to learn."
-- Miami (OH.) Coach Enrico Blasi
"It was probably the most difficult thing I've ever done," Blasi said. "I was talking with one of my mentors, and I told him: 'You didn't teach me this one.' Thank God.

"It's not something you ever want to learn."

How did he handle it?

"You just have to be honest and in the moment," he said.

He stressed the bond within the team, and emphasized that it would deal with their emotions as a group, a family.

"I didn't know many details," Blasi said. "But I did know we'd need each other. And we needed to make sure everyone was OK. And they needed to know we were there for them whenever they needed us."

Miami played Lake Superior State the next night and played on emotion, scoring four goals in the first period in a 10-2 win. The next few days were about reflection and remembering, with the entire team going to Burke's funeral.

There Brian Burke and his family greeted each member of the team individually -- a receiving line of grief and support.

Miami returned home and went to Bowling Green to play two games against the Falcons. The Redhawks won both -- ensuring them a Central Collegiate Hockey Association title and a first-round bye in the CCHA Tournament.

"The emotions," Blasi said, exhaling as he spoke, "it's been all over the place. Very sad. Very happy. Bittersweet. But very proud of the way our team handled things.

"It shows the kind of character we have in our locker room and what our program stands for. To be able to accomplish what they have in midst of real life situations is pretty remarkable."

Miami heads to NCAAs a solid favorite, but coming off two years of disappointing finishes.

Two years ago, the Redhawks were upset in the regionals. Last year, they went through an excruciating overtime loss to Boston University when they saw a two-goal lead with less than a minute left vanish. Blasi said it's what happens in sports. He took it as a learning experience and refused to let his team sulk.

It was not devastating -- and not like the emotions the team felt the past two weeks.

"You don't get over something like this," Blasi said. "We want to make sure we continue to remember Brendan in positive ways. He was a positive young man who always smiled, and doing that ourselves is something we continue to honor him by.

"In talking with the family and everybody else, the best way for us to keep honoring him is to continue to play and do what we do because that's something Brendan loved to be around.

"We don't want to shut down and I don't think Brendan would want that. We'll continue to fight and remember him.''

Added Wingels: "We'll do our best for him."

Players wear practice and game jerseys with the initials "BB" sewn on. Helmets have a "BB" insignia, and those initials also will be at center ice at Steve Cady Arena inside a shamrock.

"He was always one of the guys who wanted the best seat in the house," Blasi said. "Well he's got the best seat now."

Blasi takes a brief moment to reflect as he ponders what he most wants to get across about his team in light of the tragedy it faced. He quickly pointed out that his team's response paralleled the life and character of their manager.

"He was caring, compassionate, courageous,'' Blasi said. "I think that's the same for our team.

"There's a reason why Brendan was with us and a reason why we are together."
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