As mourners packed a Nashville church on a rainy Sunday afternoon to remember Wade Belak, some of his friends and fans are hoping a cause the former NHL tough guy planned to take on will remain part of his legacy.
Mr. Belak had been in Toronto prepping for a stint on the TV show Battle of the Blades when he was found dead in a downtown condo hotel last Wednesday morning. He apparently committed suicide and police have said his death is not suspicious.
Two days after his body was found, his mother confirmed her son suffered from depression.
In signing up for the reality show, he was following other hockey players who have raised awareness of personal causes. Mr. Belak was trying to bring attention to research and treatment for Tourette’s syndrome, with which his older daughter, seven-year-old Andie, was diagnosed a couple of years ago.
Mr. Belak had designated Toronto Western Hospital’s Tourette Syndrome Clinic as the charity he’d like to see benefit from his participation in Battle of the Blades. Tourette’s is a neurological disorder characterized by physical and vocal tics.
“I know it was tough for them to find the right medication for her,” said Michael Landsberg, the TSN host who remained a close confidant of Mr. Belak after he moved to Nashville.
“Like any parent struggling with a child’s illness, there was a lot of issues. A lot of challenges. A lot of anxiety.”
At Sunday’s funeral service in Nashville – where Mr. Belak lived with his wife, Jennifer, and daughters Andie and Alex – hundreds of people filled to capacity the Woodmont Christian Church where the Belaks were members. The program was simple: The pastor gave a eulogy and congregants sang, accompanied by piano and guitar.
“It was really just about honouring Wade,” said Thom Schuyler, a pastor at the church who helped set up the program. “There was some music, there was a lovely brief meditation and some prayers, and that was it.
“It was a very dignified service for a lovely man.”
Mr. Belak’s death is the third to hit the NHL in a matter of months. Derek Boogaard died of an oxycodone overdose in May, while Winnipeg Jets enforcer Rick Rypien died in what’s believed to be a suicide just weeks before Mr. Belak.
The trio of deaths spurred calls for the NHL to re-examine the support it provides its players and the way it approaches the fights that remain an intrinsic part of the game.
In the meantime, shocked friends and fans are trying to pick up the pieces any way they can.
Several of Mr. Belak’s former teammates had planned to gather in Toronto Sunday to raise a glass to their friend – to “sink a few and toast a wonderful man,” Jeff O’Neill, a former Maple Leaf forward, posted on Twitter Sunday. “He woulda done it for me.”
And one Nashville blogger has taken it upon himself to raise money for the Tourette Syndrome Clinic.
“That was one of the few ideas I could think of that would involve his fans from all over,” said Patten Fuqua, who writes a blog about the Predators.
He started small: The Wade Belak Memorial Charity Drive, set up a couple of days ago, had an original goal of just $3,333, to be donated in $3 increments. But people kept asking if they could donate larger amounts, Mr. Fuqua said, so he upped the limit and is now getting offers into the thousands. (As of Sunday evening, the fund stood at about $1,768.) “We’ve done it all without really soliciting,” he said. “It’s all been word of mouth.”
This is one condition that many would argue needs the attention. The Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada has spent 35 years trying to get past what executive director Rosie Wartecker called “the swearing, raving lunatic” stereotype.
“Hollywood loves it and they throw it into everything. And I know it’s fascinating, there’s no two ways about it, however it isn’t true,” she said. Only 10 per cent of people with Tourette’s conform to the compulsive expletive-hurling that’s stereotypical of the condition.
The other 90 per cent exhibit symptoms that range from simple facial tics to complex combinations of motor and vocal outbursts – jumping, hitting things, uttering sounds or words out context.
Ms. Wartecker noted Tourette’s can be particularly difficult for parents to cope with: On the one hand they’re trying to get treatment for their child; on the other, they’re faced with uncomprehending passersby who think their ill-mannered offspring is just “acting out.”
Mr. Belak wouldn’t be the first pro-hockey player whose celebrity status helped draw attention to a cause: Brian Burke became a vocal gay-rights crusader after his son Brendan came out; after his wife Colleen died of Pick’s disease, Gordie Howe dedicated himself to fighting dementia; and Sheldon Kennedy rollerbladed across Canada in 1998 to shine the spotlight on childhood sexual abuse after going public with his account of being molested by former coach Graham James.
“This could make things easier for all the others,” Ms. Wartecker said. “It’s raising a consciousness level.”
Mr. Landsberg is hesitant to say what kind of a toll it took on his friend and whether it contributed to what he sees as Mr. Belak’s depression.
“It’s not like you can send your blood away and figure out, ‘Okay, well, my problems relate 25 per cent to my anxiety over my daughter and 25 per cent to whatever.’ ”
The Tourette Syndrome Clinic is considered world-class for its combining of practices often otherwise kept in silos.
“It’s a Canadian show, in a Canadian city, and he’s Canadian,” Mr. Landsberg said of Battle of the Blades. “I think it probably just made sense to him.”
With a report from Colin Freeze