Gritty Belak feelin' the love

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:31 AM ET

He has scored one goal in the past 213 games.

And yet, the guy still gets a tribute on the centre ice scoreboard.

Welcome back, Wade Belak.

With 13:59 remaining in the first period, fans looking up at the huge high definition screen dangling from the Air Canada Centre rafters were treated to a montage of the great moments Belak enjoyed during his tenure as a Maple Leaf.

Most, to no one's surprise, occurred off the ice.

What were they going to do -- show his one and only goal since 2003? That would kill all of, well, three seconds.

But there was one moment, at the end of the video clip, that sent a buzz through the crowd.

It was highlights of Belak's famous scrap late in the 2006-07 season against the New Jersey Devils' Cam Janssen, who, several weeks earlier, had delivered a flagrant cheap shot that knocked Leafs defenceman Tomas Kaberle out of the lineup with a concussion.

As the tribute was being shown, Kaberle, sitting on the Maple Leafs bench, probably was cheering. At least on the inside, anyway.

The Maple Leafs defenceman, often referred to by critical e-mailers as "Mrs. Kaberle" for his penchant of avoiding physical play, would be the last person you would think would support the concept of enforcers in the NHL. On the surface, it would seem to go against everything he believes in when it comes to style of play.

But that is not the case. Far from it.

With Belak returning to the Air Canada Centre ice last night for the first time since being traded away by the Leafs last February, Kaberle was looking forward to seeing his former teammate again.

The bottom line: Tomas Kaberle has not forgotten what Belak did for him.

Like standing up for him.

And like seeking out Janssen and delivering the message that no, it was not OK to goon one of his skilled teammates like Kaberle without paying a price.

"It was really nice what he did for me," Kaberle said yesterday. "I never asked him to do that for me. He did it all on his own.

"Wade cared about his teammates. He defended them. He really cares about players."

The moral of this story, at least in Kaberle's mind: There is a role for Belak-type players in the NHL, no matter what the cynics say.

"I know there has been a lot of talk in the league recently that fighters should not be in the league, but I do think there is a place. They keep guys from going after a team's skilled players.

"Wade knew his job, and it was more than fighting. He tried to keep it simple. And he always forechecked hard."

After being shipped to the Florida Panthers last winter, the personable Belak was picked up by the Predators earlier this season. He is a survivor. There is no doubt about that.

Informed of Kaberle's kind words about him, Belak responded with a typical Wade Belak quip.

"That's nice of Tomas," Belak said. "Tell him not to hit me in the corner if we're in one together."

Understandable. The last thing Belak would want is to be gooned by Kaberle.

"Seriously, I think there is a place for players like me," Belak said. "The days of guys being goons and fighting in their two shifts a game are over. You have to be able to play the game too.

"At the same time, we make sure liberties are not taken on our top players, which would happen if we were not there."

Tomas Kaberle would say "Amen" to that.


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