It was shortly before Christmas 2009 when president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brian Burke, was asked if he'd like to join a group travelling to Afghanistan. The group included former NHL players, media personalities, musicians, and the real treat - the Stanley Cup. Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment began organizing this trip in 2007 as an initiative to cheer up the troops and bring the game to the desert in an effort to make them feel at home.
Burke didn't hesitate to answer, "yes."
"To be honest I didn't think I had the stature to be asked to go," he explained. "I was very honoured and I also don't think it's an option when asked to visit our troops. They're risking their lives for us every day, so you have to say yes."
Burke lit it up the media airwaves with a seven-player trade deal on Jan. 31st, 2010, and it appeared to be the beginning of a great year.
He also had two major events to look forward to in 2010: the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in February, which he would be the GM of the United States men's hockey team, and the trip to Afghanistan at the end of March.
But Burke received devastating news on Feb. 5th, seven days before the Olympics. His 21-year-old son, Brendan, passed away in a car accident. I asked if this tragedy ever made him rethink being a part of the Olympics and Afghanistan.
His answer was direct: "there were two things that Brendan was excited about - going to the Olympics and one day being able to go to Afghanistan himself. I had to go for him. The only change is that my wife, Jennifer, asked me not to go outside the wire. She said we already lost one member of the family, and she didn't want it to be two. So I didn't leave the base."
So Burke went to the Olympics and captured silver, then made his way to Afghanistan. The one thing he prayed he wouldn't have to deal with while in Afghanistan was a ramp ceremony; a military funeral that sends the fallen soldier back home. Unfortunately, a 21-year-old soldier from the State of Virginia lost his life while Burke was there.
"It was a solemn ceremony," he said. "I was so impressed by the dignified way the soldiers send their own off. All I could think about was his family."
Burke's words trailed off at this point and tears began to build, but he quickly wiped them away and regained his composure. "I just kept thinking about his family and what they were about to go through. I couldn't eat for a day."
It was an exhilarating and exhausting trip for Burke. "F-18's, Blackhawk [helicopters], Griffin and Apache helicopters kept me up all night; it was just the coolest thing."
But the dangers of war were all too real. Two weeks after returning from his trip Burke received a call from Father Jim MacKay, a priest on the Kandahar base, who informed Burke that the part of the boardwalk where the Stanley Cup was displayed had been hit by a rocket.
Fourteen feet of the boardwalk had been blown up and had Burke and his fellow travel companions been there, many would have been injured and even killed.
The first trip to Afghanistan made Burke see our troops differently. He always knew they sacrificed so much for the freedom of others, but seeing it firsthand really hit home. So when he was asked again to make the trip there was no hesitation to do one small thing for the troops who do so much for everyone else.
"It's a humbling experience. I think I have an important high-pressured job, and then I get off the helicopter and see what they have to deal with."
During his second trip in July of 2011, Burke brought with him his young defenceman, Luke Schenn.
"I told Luke that if he wants to be the patron saint in the NHL for the soldiers with his Luke's Troops initiative, then he has to get some sand in his shoes, too."
For the past six years, the Toronto Maple Leafs have hosted Canadian Military night at the Air Canada Centre, where close to 500 season-seat holders give their tickets to troops to enjoy a game. For Brian Burke, the night has taken on a new meaning. He has witnessed the danger the troops encounter every day, and he knows all too well the heartache they feel when a loved one is lost too soon.
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