Toronto sports fans know Brian Burke as the guy with the permanently askew necktie and reddish face, a plug of chewing tobacco planted firmly beneath his cheek and gums as he stared down at his hockey team from the general manager’s box in the press level at the Air Canada Centre, chirping at opposing teams or on-ice officials and urging on his Toronto Maple Leafs.
That, they’ll tell you, is “Burkie,” who was fired as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday and given the title of senior adviser.
To his critics, especially those of his tenure in this city, Mr. Burke is the guy who talked a good game but failed to deliver; who in four years has failed to bring in a competent goaltender, and overspent for players.
But outside of hockey, the straight-talking Mr. Burke presents to the public a very different face. In Toronto – and other cities like Vancouver – a legion of fans applaud his work in countless charities, where they say he is a tireless supporter of gay/lesbian rights, soldiers fighting overseas, hospital boards, and rink construction in his Leaside neighbourhood, not to mention a staunch critic of bullying among youth.
Police Chief Bill Blair, who slept on a Toronto street with Mr. Burke last November for an event organized by Covenant House to raise funds and highlight the plight of youth, lamented on Wednesday that Mr. Burke was stripped of his GM duties. “It’s kind of sad . . . this guy has been a tremendous supporter of a whole bunch of really important grassroots organizations. He’s been a huge leader with Big Sisters, Big Brothers, with Covenant House.
“He lent his name and he lent his position to a lot of important community organizations,” Chief Blair said.
“In 2008, when he was coming from Vancouver, I got a phone call from the [police] chief of Vancouver telling me there’s this guy coming to Toronto from the Vancouver Canucks, and he says he’s been a tremendous supporter of community programs here in Vancouver. It was a kind of cold call saying: You might want to meet this guy, because he’s really an excellent guy.”
Two years ago, Mr. Burke’s son Brendan was killed in a car accident. Soon after, Mr. Burke joined PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians) as a member and a volunteer. Since 2010, Mr. Burke has marched in the Gay Pride parade, said PFLAG president Irene Miller, adding that Mr. Burke has helped the organization raise its profile. He has taken a leading role in the You Can Play Foundation, which aims to facilitate the acceptance of gay and lesbian athletes in sports.
“He’s marched in three [pride parades],” Ms. Miller said. “The first year with family and friends, in 2011 with [CBC comedian] Rick Mercer, and last year with Mercer and his son Patrick. He’s also taken a strong stand against bullying.
“As a person he is loyal. He is genuine, and a man of his word. He is, as far as PFLAG is concerned, the consummate dad who would have looked out for every one of his children, gay or straight. There is a strong depth of character to Brian Burke and I feel for him today. This is one setback in one aspect of his life, but there’s way more to him than his hockey title.”
Dave Fraser, manager of events and marketing at Canadian Safe School Network, has also seen first-hand the more sensitive side of the rough-around-the-edges Toronto Maple Leafs GM. Eighteen months ago, Mr. Burke got involved with the non-profit organization, which works to reduce or eliminate bullying and violence in schools, and Mr. Fraser said his input – bringing NHL hockey players and other high-profile members of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (including his successor, Dave Nonis) to speak out against bullying – has been invaluable.
“He may seem like a gruff guy on the outside in media appearances, but when it comes to charitable organizations he supports, there’s nothing he won’t do,” Mr. Fraser said. “He bends over backward for us.”
While Mr. Burke can’t be thrilled with his demotion after more than four years at the helm of the Leafs, Chief Blair said he doesn’t think it came as a total shock to his friend. “He and I both run organizations, and one of the things he said to me was that in his business, if you don’t win, you lose your job. He was very aware of accepting that he’s in a really tough business.
“My experience of him was not so much around hockey, I don’t purport to know a lot about it,” Chief Blair added. “But I do know a fair bit about people and I know Brian Burke is a very decent individual, tremendously committed. What an asset he became. As soon as he arrived in Toronto, he got involved in the city and he got his hockey organization involved in the city – bringing them out to events, particularly around young people, and particularly around gay rights.
“I was encouraged to hear [Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment] say they’re going to keep Brian on as an adviser. So I’m hoping we’re going to continue to benefit from his leadership and his good citizenship.”