Sam Donnellon: USA Hockey's Burke carries on with heavy heart

Associated Press
Associated Press
Posted: February 23, 2010

VANCOUVER - On the anniversary of the greatest of all upsets, Jim Craig was talking about that other side of sports, when personal tragedy elevates events into the inspirational, or even the incomprehensible.

"When somebody dies, that strength doesn't go away," he was saying during a downtown appearance for Allstate yesterday. "It goes to the people who need it."

He was connecting the dots here. The mother of Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette died of a heart attack early Sunday. A Georgian luger was killed in a practice run at the onset of these games. And Brian Burke, the general manager and architect of Team USA and a good friend of Craig, lost his son Brendan in a car accident a week before the games were to begin.

"I know that Brian will be inspired," said Craig, the goaltender on the 1980 gold-medal team. "I know the Canadian skater will be inspired. Even the poor luger who lost his life, something good will come of that. There's always some positive that comes out of death."

Thirty years ago tomorrow, draped in a flag after the United States completed its impossible dream by defeating Finland, 4-2, in the gold-medal game, Craig tearfully sought his father in the stands. The two had grown close after Margaret Craig lost her battle with cancer in 1977, had somehow together channeled the strength of a hockey mom who drove her son toward a destiny that still defines him today. Jim took over pieces of her job, like checking on the academic progress of two younger brothers. Dad became more of a hockey dad. They did things to honor her, he said, and they became better men because of it.

A gruff man known for his indelicate candor, Burke arrived here a week ago minus his game face, fielding questions, sharing his emotions, breaking down a few times even as he discussed the loss of his younger son only months after Brendan made international news by publicly disclosing he was gay.

Burke stood by his son that November day, later marched with him in a gay rights parade. A senior at Miami of Ohio, the kid showed "a lot of jam" coming out, the father said then.

"He was a courageous kid, a gregarious kid, a compassionate kid," Burke said when he met with the media 9 days ago. The manager of the hockey team at Miami of Ohio, Brendan was with a friend heading back to school after looking at Michigan State University as a potential place to pursue a law degree. The friend, Mark Reedy, also died.

"The saddest part about it was that his future was so bright,'' Burke said. "The sky was the limit for this kid.''

Then, his eyes welling up, Burke said, "It's not supposed to be like this. Your kids are supposed to bury you. I don't think my grief will ever end.''

So why is he here? Because it's his job, he said. Because a lot of lives depend on him being here. And so, a day after his controversial decisions were validated via Team USA's inspiring, 5-3 win over Canada, Brian Burke met the media and did his job.

Which was to do a job on his own team.

"I'm not happy with how we've played in the tournament so far," he said. "We've got 10 guys carrying us, in my opinion. We need everyone pulling on the rope. You didn't see Canada's best game [Sunday] night. You didn't see Sweden's best game [Sunday] night. Everything gets ratcheted up now.

"If we don't crank it up, this all goes for nothing . . . They don't hand out any medals for first in the preliminary round.''

Back at USA House, where Craig signed a giant likeness of his flag-draped moment, he chuckled as he recalled the U.S.' first meeting with the Soviets in 1980, a 10-3 beating in Madison Square Garden.

"That was Herb Brooks' genius, playing them in Madison Square Garden," he said. "Seeing them, playing against them, and not holding them in such revere.

"When you're young, you don't know better. You don't know that you can't accomplish something. And I think this year's U.S. team is young enough that they don't worry about it. The other part is they don't overrespect this Canadian team. They don't show them the respect like we did when we played the Russians the first time."

Burke is this Olympiad's Brooks. This is his team, full of controversial selections, just as that 1980 team was. He was steeled to be torched if it didn't work out, and now that the early signs are promising, it is his job to keep pushing, to keep managing.

No matter what is happening around him.

"Part of my heart's been ripped out," Burke said when he arrived here. "But it's time to engage again. I know Brendan would have wanted it that way."

Send e-mail to

donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/donnellon.

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