Q&A with Brian Burke, the no-nonsense Leafs GM, world’s best hockey dad and unlikely gay icon

Q&A with Brian Burke, the no-nonsense Leafs GM, world’s best hockey dad and unlikely gay icon

(Image: Adam Rankin) 

Last year must’ve been the most challenging time of your life, with the death of your son Brendan in a car accident in February. How did that experience change your perspective?
When you lose a child, you don’t go an hour without thinking about it, but I’ve got five kids from ages four to 29, and I’ve got to keep looking after them and looking after my wife. I don’t have a choice.

Just a week after he died, you had to attend the Olympics in Vancouver as the coach of the U.S. team. That must have been agonizing.
There were important things that had to get done right on the heels of the accident: the Olympics, then the trade deadline, followed by the draft. At the time I was grateful to be busy. Work is great therapy.

We’ve heard you’ll blow off a playoff game to be with your kids. Is that true?
Yup. I missed a playoff game in Vancouver because I had the kids that weekend and couldn’t move the date.

Before his death, your son was one of the first college hockey players to come out as gay. You supported him during the process. Have you seen a cultural shift in the hockey world?
Not yet. Sports is the last bastion of homophobia. There’s still not a player in the NHL who’s acknowledged he’s gay. What Brendan did took great courage, and I am determined to make sure that his work continues. I look forward to the day when coming out is not even a news story.

You seem to embody that typical hockey player toughness: you’re a big guy, you ride a motorcycle, and when Brendan came out publicly, you admitted you’re something of a poster boy for straight people. Does that help or hinder your role as a gay rights activist?
I think it helps break stereotypes to a certain extent—a real macho GM who supported his son. Then again, some people don’t like me, and I’ll never change their minds on this issue.

What’s the worst homophobia you’ve witnessed in hockey?
I haven’t been in a dressing room since the late ’70s, when I was a player. Back then, homophobic slurs were common. Although, I’m not sure that calling your fellow player a “fag” is intentionally homophobic—it’s a habit. But it’s still offensive, and it still has to go.

You’ve talked about the dreaded Blue and White disease, and vowed to cure it. What exactly do you mean?
It’s the Maple Leaf complacency. It’s a notion that if you play in Toronto, so long as you play OK, that’s good enough. You make big money, there are 20 reporters waiting to talk to you when you come off the ice, you’re adored. Mediocrity is not good enough for me. I told our guys when I got here that there will be 20 people in the room who care as much about winning as I do, or we’ll keep sending players back to where they came from.

Has that put your players a little on edge?
Yeah, guys have to be concerned about their performance now. They’re worried about their jobs.

There are thousands of armchair Maple Leaf GMs in this town. How do you deal with the competition?
The day people don’t care about this hockey team, we’re all out of work. So God bless them all, but I don’t think there’s a writer or radio guy who knows more about putting a team together than I do.

What defines being a GM in Toronto, arguably the hardest job in sports?
We have the best fans in hockey. They bleed blue. We have to reward that loyalty.

Casting a cold eye on this year’s crop, how far are we going?
The team has changed, and it is better. Are we good enough to be a playoff team, which is our goal? We’re about to find out.