Humboldt Broncos tragedy stirs painful memories for Brian Burke

Flowers lie at centre ice as people gather for a vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, to honour the victims of a fatal bus accident in Humboldt, Sask. on Sunday, April 8, 2018. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

There’s a hockey stick propped outside Brian Burke’s house and a lump in his throat as he tries to digest the emotions of it all.

While Canadians from coast to coast continue to pay stirring tribute to the Humboldt Broncos, the enormity of the loss has been particularly hard on the Calgary Flames president of hockey operations.

"Watching this coverage, all it does is put me right back to when I got the phone call," said Burke, choking up.

"These poor families – I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine [the] dads getting the same call I got."

It has been eight years since Burke received the news every parent fears – his youngest son, Brendan, was involved in a car crash that took his life.

The 21-year-old, who had just made headlines by coming out to the hockey world as a gay man, died in an Indiana hospital due to injuries sustained after his Jeep slid sideways into an oncoming truck.

Brendan and his 18-year-old passenger were killed in the collision, which came mid-afternoon on treacherous, snowy roads. The driver of the truck survived.

"My son was driving in heavy snow and horrible conditions – at least it makes a little more sense than this," said Burke, 62, prior to the news Wednesday afternoon that Dayna Brons became the 16th person to lose their life in the crash.

"And it wasn’t 15 kids, it was two. But this is 5 p.m. on a lightly-travelled highway in daylight and it wasn’t bad weather. You don’t expect it."

What Burke, and so many Canadians are struggling with now, is how he can help.

He’s donated money and put sticks out front of his home as part of the stirring #SticksOutForHumboldt Twitter campaign.

He wants to do more.

"I’ll do something but I don’t know when the right time for that is," said Burke, who is forever giving of his time to charitable endeavours, including the You Can Play Project he started in his son’s honour.

"My ex-wife thinks I should call all the parents. But I said, ‘I don’t know if that helps.’ I’ll help any way I can, but having been through it I just know that well-meaning strangers offering condolences didn’t help.

"I didn’t appreciate calls from strangers, even famous strangers. Second, it drags me back down too. It puts me right back in that damn church."

Burke said that while he appreciated the intention of well-wishers who called after his son’s passing, it didn’t help his healing process.

"You had to be polite, but I didn’t want to talk to someone who didn’t know my kid," said Burke.

"They think they’re helping, saying ‘I’m in the same club you are,’ which, fortunately, is a small, sad club. But it didn’t do me any good. I’d tell them, ‘I appreciate the call but you don’t know me and you didn’t know my kid.’"

Burke said he got hundreds of pieces of mail "and they were wonderful."

"They helped, but the calls, they just make it worse," said Burke, who understands everyone grieves differently.

"One guy called and said, ‘How’d it happen?’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me, right? You want me to give you a blow-by-blow of the car accident?

"Another guy called me and said, ‘I know what you’re going through, we just lost our dog of 15 years.’

I said you think an effing dog is comparable to my son?

Have you lost your mind? I said losing a dog is a terrible loss, but if you think it’s on this scale…"

Referring to the Humboldt crash as incomprehensible, Burke said he’s amazed that given how many athletes are travelling on busses around the world at any given time, that there aren’t more crashes.

What he isn’t surprised by is the outpouring of support the hockey world and the nation have responded with.

"Hockey is an amazing family," said Burke, pausing to collect himself as the conversation returned to Brendan, a long-time goalie who acted as student-manager of the University of Miami (in Ohio) hockey team.

"When Brendan died … you can’t believe the people who came to my son’s wake, or his funeral, or both. People flew from the West Coast for it. It was unbelievable.

"The Leafs flew in, Miami University sent their team in.

The hockey community comes together unbelievably when there’s a tragedy.

"That’s one of our greatest strengths."

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