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A file photo of Brendan Burke, who died after a car crash in Indiana on Friday.

JODI HILTON/jodi hilton The Globe and Mail

Two teams, in vastly different leagues, took to the ice united in grief this past weekend.

One, full of pros in the midst of another long, losing season, played for their general manager and his family. The other, college players suddenly in the spotlight, skated for a fallen friend many considered a teammate in life.

Under difficult circumstances, both won big on Saturday night, and in doing so, attempted to make sense of one tragic loss.

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"It's been hard," said Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who gave a poignant address to the media Saturday night in his first comments since the death of Brendan Burke, general manager Brian Burke's 21-year-old son.

"I've known Brendan almost since the day he was born and he was a special kid. It's just the worst thing that any parent can possibly imagine."

Less than 24 hours after learning Brendan had been killed in a car accident in Indiana on Friday afternoon, the Leafs and the Miami University RedHawks - where Burke was the team's student manager - took to the ice Saturday night and pasted their opponents.

Playing with emotion, a positive in a sport that thrives on hustle, proved too much for opponents who had shown up for just another game.

"I tried to stay focused, but everything going through your head is about Brendan," RedHawks captain Tommy Wingels, fighting tears, told local media following a 10-4 win over Lake Superior State. "Not one guy is going to get through it himself. It's 27 guys and the coaching staff. I'm just so thankful to have them."

"I won't be able to comprehend what Burkie is going through at this point," said Leafs netminder Jean-Sébastien Giguère, who led his team to a 5-0 shutout of the Ottawa Senators. "We're in shock. It's not supposed to go that way."

As trivial as games played with a puck and stick might seem, weighed against matters of life and death, winning, the players had said, was their focus.

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Win one for Burkie.

Win one for Brendan.

The hockey world's lexicon is never particularly complex, and met with the grief and confusion of such a senseless loss of life this weekend, many players were at a loss for even those simple words - knowing only that somehow winning mattered, as it always had.

So they played their hearts out.

Brendan, all but unknown until last fall, had become far more than a high-profile NHL GM's youngest son in the past few months, as his story of revealing that he was gay - told first to his father, then the world - resonated with many in and outside of the game.

His father, at the time, had called Brendan a "pioneer," and in a sport that has yet to have a single professional player - active or retired - come out of the closet, that's exactly the road he may have travelled had he pursued a career at hockey's highest levels.

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Just like his father, Brendan was a gifted academic, a dean's list student at Miami who planned to study law and potentially enter politics. And, as his brother Patrick told the Boston Herald, being gay was far from what defined him.

"If he had been born straight, he would have come up with another cause to fight for, and he would have been front and centre in that one, too," said Patrick, a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers.

As it is, Burke's story stands out as one of acceptance - from a man known for advocating for "truculence" in hockey and in a game with barriers that still need to be broken down.

On Saturday, the Burkes' two teams - one in the centre of hockey's universe, and the other in a sleepy city of 20,000 in southwest Ohio - held moments of silence in remembrance and then celebrated a life with goals on the ice.

Brian, meanwhile, had landed in Boston with his son's body late that evening, an unimaginably sad time for a man who has achieved so much joy in the game.

Tomorrow morning, he will bury a young man the world had just got to know in his hometown of Canton, Mass.

"I'm just proud of the team that they didn't allow this to be a distraction," Wilson said. "They really focused and we really wanted to win this for Brendan, for Brian and the whole Burke family.

"Everybody who works here, most of our players, they're here because of Brian and we didn't want to let him down. I know Brian texted in a few times to [assistant GM]Dave Nonis - he couldn't avoid that to see how we're doing - and I'm sure Dave responded that we couldn't have played a better game."

And in a season of so many losses, it's likely few wins will matter more


NOTES Netminder Jean-Sébastien Giguère, who made 30 saves Saturday for his second shutout in as many games with the Toronto Maple Leafs, will start the team's two games before the Olympic break. The Leafs play the San Jose Sharks tonight at home and the Blues in St. Louis on Friday. … With a three-day break between games, the Leafs will attend Brendan Burke's funeral tomorrow morning. The son of Leafs general manager Brian Burke died in a car crash last Friday. … Toronto recalled rookie Viktor Stalberg from the minors and demoted winger Jay Rosehill yesterday. … Leafs winger Phil Kessel and defenceman Luke Schenn both picked up two goals and an assist against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, adding to their recent hot runs. Kessel has five goals and eight points in his past four games, and Schenn has four goals and eight points in his past 20. Schenn has also played more than 21 minutes a night since the Leafs traded defenceman Ian White to the Calgary Flames on Feb. 1. … Leafs coach Ron Wilson credits newcomer Dion Phaneuf with Schenn's improvement and better morale among the team in general. "To me, the way Dion's come in and encouraged another youngster like Luke - all of a sudden you see Luke playing entirely different," Wilson said. "Dion's going up and down [the bench]encouraging guys, it's all positive, and a lot of other guys are jumping on that."

NEXT Tonight, against the San Jose Sharks, at Toronto, 7 p.m.

TV Rogers Sportsnet (Ontario)

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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