TORONTO - Even when some rotten chow left his gut and bowels churning and bubbling, Wade Belak never lost his sense of humour.
At one particular point during his tenure with the Maple Leafs, the personable pugilist had missed a handful of days due to a bout of food poisoning, leaving him queasy and feeling ill.
After finally declaring himself able enough to rejoin his teammates, nausea be damned, Belak, still not at 100%, still found time to joke with a nearby columnist.
“Hey Zize! Who knew that nibbling on chicken after it has been sitting on the counter for a week would make you sick?” Belak bellowed.
Indeed, who knew?
In the end, Belak knew. Of course he did. He was just having fun.
That’s what Wade Belak did, in good times and in bad. That’s what endeared him to teammates and coaches alike.
Just ask Pat Quinn, the man who first plucked him off waivers for the Maple Leafs.
“It’s like when you have kids, you are not supposed to lean towards one more than the others,” Quinn said on Wednesday night from his Vancouver home after learning of Belak’s passing. “But let’s face it, you do. And that’s the way I was with Wade.
“It was hard to not like Wade. He was so personable. And he never gave up. A lot of first-round picks would have thrown in the towel if their career would have hit some significant road blocks. But not Wade.
“This news is so sad.”
How ironic. On this day, the man who had made so many in the hockey world laugh was now causing tears to well up in the eyes of those same people.
You are so right Pat. It is sad.
But in his passing, there are so many things those of us who had the pleasure of covering him will fondly remember.
When the Maple Leafs held their training camp in Stockholm back in 2003, Sportsnet gave Belak a portable camera as part of a regular feature called “Wade’s World.”
Sweden would never be the same.
In one of his first reports, Belak was walking in the park across the street from the team’s downtown Stockholm hotel when he saw a couple making out on a bench.
“Is doing that in public legal in this country?” he joked, causing the surprised participants to immediately stop smooching and look up.
Several days later, Belak’s assignment was to wedge his hulking torso into a tiny smart car. Imagine the surprise of the locals at seeing a 6-foot-5, 245 pound behemoth squeezed into a chassis that looked like a toy.
Only in Wade’s World.
Of course, his playful antics were on display on this side of the Atlantic too.
There was, for example, the day that Belak’s mom could not find one of her son’s replica jerseys at the Air Canada Centre souvenir and memorabilia store. Perplexed at the absence of any No. 2 Belak jerseys on the racks, she asked Wade what was going on.
Cue the quip.
“I told her they must be all sold out,” Belak said, tongue planted firmly in cheek.
At the same time, there was more to Wade Belak than just a guy who was occupying the role of class clown. In the end, his teammates knew he always had their backs.
Teammates like Tomas Kaberle.
On March 3, 2007, a late hit by the Devils’ Cam Janssen knocked Kaberle out of the Leafs lineup with a concussion. Less than three weeks later, in a return matchup at the ACC, Belak sought out Janssen in retribution and dropped the gloves.
The building went bonkers. More than 18,000 fans broke into a chorus of “Be-lak, Be-lak!”
Two years later, Belak made his return to the ACC for the first time since leaving the Leafs. Once again, he received a rousing ovation when a video in his honour was played on the ACC scoreboard.
Why would spectators be so enthusiastic for a player who had scored just once in his previous 213 games?
Such was the intoxicating charm Wade Belak could have on people.
“Wade cared about others,” Quinn said. “He showed that a few years ago when those fires were going on the east side of Kelowna.
“Sure he had a home there. But he was more concerned about his friends and other people who were being effected.
“That’s just the way Wade was.”
And the way some of us will choose to remember him.