With his gregarious personality and sense of humour, former NHL player Wade Belak charmed his colleagues and television audiences off the ice while using his 6’5” heft to establish a tough-guy reputation on the rink.
It was a surprise to those who knew him when he was found dead on Wednesday afternoon in a hotel suite.
He is the third NHL enforcer to die in four months, a trend that is prompting questions about whether the deaths are linked to their role in the league.
Mr. Belak, 35, who retired from playing earlier this year, was in Toronto training for a stint on CBC’s Battle of the Blades this fall. Local police said the body of a man was discovered in a suite at One King West, an upscale hotel and condominium building in the financial district, around 1:40 p.m. The cause of death was not released, but police said foul play is not suspected.
Former Montreal Canadiens enforcer Georges Laraque remembered Mr. Belak as a worthy adversary and called the role of fighters “the toughest job in professional sports.” Leaving the game can be particularly difficult.
“If you had all this pressure to fight while you’re in the NHL, after you have the pressure to live because you don’t have any other option. All you did was fight. You don’t know what you’re going to do,” he said. “This had to happen for people to realize how tough this job is and how tough guys are not as invincible as everybody thinks that they are.”
A native of Saskatoon, Mr. Belak was drafted 12th overall in 1994 by the Quebec Nordiques. He played for the Colorado Avalanche, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and Nashville Predators.
Off the ice, he was a media favourite who liked to joke around and filmed humorous television segments. Not surprisingly, he signed up for a job as a sideline reporter at Nashville games upon his retirement. He also maintained a light-hearted Twitter feed, to which he posted as recently as Tuesday night.
And this personality was what colleagues remembered about him Wednesday.
“He was always upbeat, he was always the guy that was bringing along other guys, whether it be in the workout room or after the practice,” Predators GM David Poile told reporters in Nashville. “Everybody knew when Wade Belak was in the room because he was big, he was loud and he was fun.”
Even after the organization placed Mr. Belak on waivers, he maintained a good relationship with the team and was in the office on Monday, excited about the future, he said.
Former Leafs coach Pat Quinn praised the player’s work ethic and his ability to keep an upbeat attitude even after a setback.
He also reflected on the loss to professional hockey, made more acute by its proximity to two other deaths.
“Anybody that's around this game, you feel like it's part of your big family, and that includes the fans and all the people that support these players and get to know them,” he said. “We’ve lost a lot in the last three months.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman released the following statement regarding Mr. Belak’s death:
“The National Hockey League family mourns the passing of Wade Belak, who competed to the utmost every minute of his NHL career. Our hearts go out to Wade's loved ones, his friends, his former teammates and to all who feel the horrible void left by this tragedy.”
While the league has had tragedies before, three deaths in a row is highly unusual.
“It’s not only about the deaths, it’s the deaths that surround similar type players,” said Craig Button, who was GM of the Flames during Mr. Belak’s stint there. “It’s not just getting hit in the head, it’s everything that goes with that role.”
New York Rangers tough guy Derek Boogaard, 28, was found dead in May due to a lethal mixing of alcohol and oxycodone. Winnipeg Jets forward Rick Rypien, 27, committed suicide in his hometown of Coleman, Alta., on Aug. 15.
Their deaths prompted discussion of mental health and addiction problems within the league.
Married to Jennifer Russell since 2002, Mr. Belak had two children, Andie Marie, 7, and five-year-old Alex Grace.
With a report from the Canadian Press