Former Nashville Predators enforcer, Wade Belak was found dead in a Toronto condominium Wednesday afternoon. The cause of death has been confirmed to be by hanging. With all that the well-loved, recently-retired forward had going for him heading into a promising impending post-hockey broadcasting career, all anyone in the Preds community can now ask is, ‘why?’ (Photo: David Zalubowski – Associated Press)

This Was One Hat Trick Nobody Wanted to See Scored.
They say that bad things happen in threes. Gawd, I hate it when they’re right. In what has been the summer from Hell as far as deaths in the National Hockey League are concerned, the devastating news continues.

For the third time in three-and-a-half months, an NHL enforcer has died by his own hand, intentionally or not.

Former Nashville Predators enforcer, Wade Belak was found dead in a Toronto hotel and condominium complex Wednesday afternoon. According to multiple news sources he took his own live via hanging. He was 35 years old.

The recently-retired Preds forward/defenseman was a husband and father of two young daughters, ages five and seven years old. His family learned of the horrible news through the media.

Belak’s death makes the the third former NHL tough guy to be found dead without the suspicion of foul play since May 13th of this year when New York Rangers enforcer, Derek Boogaard fell victim to the assumed accidental mixing of alcohol and drugs. Winnipeg Jets forward Rick Rypien’s body was found on August 15th, under circumstances pointing to, but not officially confirming suicide.

And now Belak.

Only eight days ago he was the subject of a National Post feature article. As one of the upcoming season’s contestants of the CBC’s Dancing With The Stars-type reality show, Battle of the Blades, Belak was making his somewhat begrudging, yet ultimately graceful transition from hockey player to post-hockey personality. However, it wouldn’t be nearly the steep drop from celebrity to relative anonymity that some former athletes are forced to face; Wade’s vivid personality and raw likability would never stand for that.

After being waived by the Predators last February and subsequently remaining unclaimed by another team, Belak sort of rolled into retirement. He never made an official announcement after he hung up the skates for the final time, explaining, “I thought about having a press conference, but I didn’t want to make an ass of myself.”

And really, therein lies the essence of this jovial ginger — at least on the surface. Belak was a jokster; the tough guy who performed his role on the ice well, but would probably rather make you laugh instead of cry; he was a pugilist with the heart of a court jester.

Belak played parts of 14 seasons for Colorado, Calgary, Toronto, Florida, and finally, Nashville. He was never a scorer, averaging just over a half a goal per season and finishing with but eight for his entire career. He never lit the lamp in his two and-a-half seasons with the Predators.

He was a player who in the past few years found himself on the fringes of NHL society; a veteran playing the evermore embattled role of enforcer; the designation of player whose value is based more on the hardness of his fists than the softness of his scoring touch, and whose place in the modern game has become increasingly called into question.

A Disappearing Breed
Belak was among a breed that seems to be rapidly disappearing from the National Hockey League; one that, ironically, has now lost three prominent members of its fighting fraternity during this summer of 2011 alone. Nevertheless, with the Predators, Belak was much more than a commodity. He was highly valued by the fans for his easy-going nature, quick wit, and self-deprecating sense of humor, and by the local community for his service to charities and well-known work as a volunteer fireman in Williamson County.

He was a buoyant force in the Predators’ dressing room, keeping things light and promoting the team’s renowned sense of closeness and family.

But regarding his role on the ice, he was honest, and it would seem — comfortable with whom he was. This was no disgruntled, wannabe scoring forward. He knew who he was as a player and embraced that role. Quoted in Kevin Allen’s USAToday article Wednesday evening, former Nashville Associate Head Coach, Brent Peterson referred to Belak as “our most popular player with the other players, management and staff. He was a terrific, positive, upbeat person and this is an absolute shock.”

Peterson went on to underscore Belak’s overall value to the team even beyond the time when his hockey skills had diminished. “We kept him on past when we thought he would play a lot because he was such a great guy and he always went out and did his job,” Peterson said.

Hockey was Belak’s life, but he knew when to quit — and apparently, what to do next.

Making Sense of the Senseless
Following his (unannounced) retirement, for the balance of the season last year, Belak immediately took advantage of the opportunities that were placed before him. He hosted a weekly live Predators interview show on local radio and occasionally served as radio play-by-play color man with Tom Callahan on the Predators Radio Network.

After the season, as the summer wore on, the media opportunities continued, with the Battle of the Blades as well as the arrival of a new, all-sports Predators flagship station, 102.5 The Game presented Belak with multi-level broadcasting opportunities.

His spot-involvement with Nashville’s hockey broadcasts would now become a permanent one, as the Pred’s sideline reporter during TeeVee games this season, in addition to conducting pre-and-post game interviews. Additionally, his part-time gig as a weekly radio show host would now become permanent.

The maiden voyage of The Wade Belak Show had just set sail this past Monday.

Belak had the look of one who was prepared to hit the ground running to begin this next phase of his professional life. If he was at all apprehensive about the future, he certainly didn’t act like it. Sure, he was disappointed to admit that his playing days were at an end, but he gave every appearance as one excited for the challenge ahead, with all of Nashville behind him, just as excited to see him take it on.

Like former Preds teammates Steve Sullivan and J.P. Dumont before him, Belak had decided to keep his family in the positive child-rearing environs of Music City when his playing days were over. Despite enduring ties to Toronto, Nashville would be his post-hockey career place of residence. He had work; his family loved it here; it would seem he had all his ducks in a row.

So what could have possibly forced him to end his life at the beginning of an era of that had all the markings of a positive, growing experience for himself, his family, and the fans who adored him?

That is a question that cannot be answered now, and probably never will be.

Instead, let’s look at something else; something good that Wade Belak did.

Fighting For Toots
For all the detractors of Belak’s play in recent seasons (regrettably, including yours truly), while Jordin Tootoo may not think to directly credit him for aiding his in his own hockey development, I think it’s interesting to note the ‘coincidental’ direct, positive affect that Belak’s presence had on at least one of his teammates.

A few years ago, at the intersection of management’s desire to redirect the boundless energy of Jordin Tootoo’s  penchant for the penalty minutes and the fighting majors, which the home crowds loved but that Head Coach Barry Trotz considered an unworthy toll on the greater potential he possessed as an overall player, General Manager David Poile acquired Belak from the Florida Panthers near the midway point of the 2008-09 season. There was no question as to why he was here. Belak’s reputation as one of the game’s foremost fighters was as solid as it was well-deserved. At the time, the Preds really lacked anyone other than Tootoo to take care of that part of their game and Trotz figured Jordin had more important things to concentrate on.

With Belak now responsible for providing protection for the Preds’ non-combatant forwards, Toots was free to concentrate on reconnecting himself with aspects of his game that had been part of his junior hockey resume, but had somewhat been flagging on the NHL level. Defensive responsibility and playmaking were the first skills to reemerge for Tootoo after Belak’s arrival in Nashville.

Toots went from a three-seasons-total plus/minus number of -34 from ’06-’07 through ’08-’09, to a combined +10 over the past two seasons; while his scoring has remained consistent over the same period and his penalty minutes have plummeted by more than half (e.g.: an average 113 PIMs per year from ’06-’07 through ’08-’09, versus just 50.5 PIMs each of the past two seasons).

More Belak/Tootoo Irony
This past Sunday marked the nine-year anniversary of the tragedy that was the suicide death of Jordin’s elder brother, Terrence Tootoo, who took his own life on August 28, 2002. The previous evening, while driving home after drinks with Jordin, Terence was stopped and cited with a DUI by Brandon, Manitoba city police. Distraught, ashamed, and assuming he had disgraced his family with this offense, after writing a brief farewell note to his brother, he ended his life just a few hours later.

To commemorate his brother’s passing, Jordin offered the following statement via his Twitter account last Sunday:

Then, less than 72 hours later, on Wednesday evening, in Tootoo’s very next tweet, he was mourning the loss of his teammate.

How surreal must that have been for Tootoo?

The Third Bell
It’s a tough task, making a sense of tragedy. As much as we try to assign risk or reason, sometimes it’s probably better to just acknowledge the pain, treasure the memories of the good times, and move on.

Further investigation will hopefully bring Wade Belak’s death into clearer focus, but we may never know why it happened, just as we may never know why New York Rangers enforcer, Derek Boogaard decided to mix booze and narcotic pain killers this past Friday May 13th, or for that matter, why anyone would be so silly to take such a risk when the potential consequences are so well known.

When mixed with alcohol, the pain killer Oxycodone can accelerate its effect on the body some 3-10 times. Its purpose in blocking pain receptors can at that point literally shut your organs down, particularly with regard to breathing and blood pressure. And although the responsible effect wasn’t specified, such complications surely caused Boogaard’s death.

Also mysterious, though less of a surprise, was the untimely demise of former Vancouver Canucks tough guy, Rick Rypien, whose death back on August 15th has never been assigned an official cause but is almost universally understood to be suicide.

Rypien’s longstanding battle with clinical depression may placate our need to tie this tragedy up in a neat little bow, but the lack of any outstanding explanation as to why a man who had battled his demons for years, had apparently beaten them, and had just recently signed a lucrative new contract to return to the province where he played juniors, to battle for the NHL’s newly-reprised Winnipeg Jets, would take his own life, causes that pretty little package to all but completely unravel.

Like Boogaard and Rypien, Belak’s death is a frustrating puzzle to decode, as are all tragedies, suicides or otherwise. We want to know why — not for any salacious satisfaction, but to make sense of our world and in this case, to make sense of the world inhabited by those we admire and revere through sports.

Wade Belak wasn’t just a hockey player; he was a family member in the Nashville hockey community. And while we can obsess over the whys and the what-ifs, it truly does behoove us to instead respect the privacy of his family and remember him for what he brought to the table of this family…

…and smile.


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So long, Beezer.


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