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Brendan Burke, the 21-year-old son of Toronto Maple Leafs manager Brian Burke, died in a two-car accident in Indiana Friday afternoon, the Huffington Post reports. Burke came to national attention last year when an ESPN.com story profiled his coming out and his father's and family's acceptance of his sexual orientation.
Burke, who was a student assistant on the University of Miami (Ohio) hockey team, was reportedly driving east on a snow-covered U.S. 35 in a Jeep Grand Cherokee when his vehicle slid sideways into an oncoming 1997 Ford Truck, the Richmond (Ind.) Palladium-Item reports. Burke's passenger, 18-year-old Mark Reedy, also died in the accident.
Damien Cox of the Toronto Star tweeted the following:
"Oh my goodness, what awful news. Brian Burke's son, Brendan, was killed in a car accident in Indiana today. Huge prayers to the family.
Brendan Burke courageous young man. Came out in ESPN.com story earlier this year. Hoped to have a career in hockey. So sad.
Brendan Burke was just 21 years old. His 18-year-old friend, a passenger in the car, was also killed in treacherous, snowy conditions."
In the ESPN.com story, Burke expressed gratitude for his family's and team's acceptance of his sexual orientation: "Imagine if I was in the opposite situation, with a family that wouldn't accept me, working for a sports team where I knew I couldn't come out because I'd be fired or ostracized," he said. "People in that situation deserve to know that they can feel safe, that sports isn't all homophobic and that there are plenty of people in sports who accept people for who they are."
According to the Toronto Star, the Burkes decided to go public about Brendan's sexual orientation after a reporter, who had been a friend of the family, said he was going to write about it. Brendan had told his father in 2007 that he was gay, and while his father said he was surprised, he said at the time, "'It won't change anything Brendan. It doesn't change our view. We love you and we're proud of you. It doesn't change anything in my mind and it never will.'"
The Star reports that Burke's coming out was widely credited with nudging hockey toward overcoming its sometimes homophobic culture.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman released a statement Friday in response to the news. "The National Hockey League grieves for the family and friends of Brendan Burke, a young man of courage and character," he said. "Words simply cannot express our sorrow over his loss. We send our deepest respect, most heartfelt condolences to Brendan's father, Brian; his mother, Kerry; everyone in Brendan's family and all who were inspired by his love of hockey."