TORONTO - With so many ex-players finding a place in the media and entertainment world, many thought Wade Belak’s star would shine for years to come.
But just two months after his 35th birthday, former mates, coaches and a legion of fans were absorbing the news he’d taken his own life in a Toronto hotel residence.
“I rode to the rink with him every day for a year ... what a great person he was,” said shocked ex-Leafs pal Ken Klee, who played with Belak for three seasons. “I most recall the times when he would have you in stitches. He was 100% a quality person and teammate and would do anything asked of him. My heart goes out to his family.”
From humble beginnings in Saskatchewan farm country, Belak didn’t quite live up to his first-round billing, but he carved out a 13-year NHL career. He could certainly tussle (almost 140 total bouts according to hockeyfights.com), but his energy on and off the ice is what people will remember most fondly
“One of the things I liked about him was his robustness,” former Leafs coach Pat Quinn said. “He didn’t have the good skills like a first-rounder, but it didn’t deter him. He reconciled that he would stick to it.
“The fans, they liked him. He was one of those kids that nothing seemed to sour him. That wasn’t a facade for the public, he was like that behind closed doors, too.
“He wasn’t just a guy you pushed out there on a three-wheeler, he could play. We tried him on defence, we moved him up front and he never complained, he accepted that role. And you could play him in some (crucial) minutes.”
Win-starved Toronto hockey fans will often give a fourth-line plugger the same adulation as a skill player and Belak earned their cheers. The team released a statement Wednesday night:
“Wade was extremely popular with his teammates, the staff, and Maple Leafs fans everywhere. He was the consummate team player on and off the ice. He will be deeply missed in the hockey community and our thoughts and prayers are with Wade’s family and friends during this challenging time.”
Reached at his Minneapolis office Wednesday afternoon, Belak’s agent, Ben Hankinson, was still in shock.
“I’m not going to make a comment now,” Hankinson said. “We’re still sorting things out at this point, I haven’t talked to the police and I’m still dealing with informing his family.”
Coming off a shoulder injury in 2009-10, Belak was facing reduced playing time with the Nashville Predators. He was sent to the minors for salary cap purposes, then officially retired March 8 after playing just 15 games. By then, he was auditioning for a radio role with the Preds and other future TV gigs. He was about to appear on CBC’s Battle of The Blades. A couple of days ago, Belak had dropped in on Nashville GM David Poile.
“He was giving everybody a hard time about the upcoming season,” Poile told Nashville reporters. “He told (associate coach) Brent Peterson and the coaches how hard he’d be on the interviews, in a kidding way.
“It’s totally shocking. You don’t get it, you don’t understand it. None of it makes any sense as I’m standing here. It’s a sad, sad situation.”
Former Nashville teammate Dan Hamhuis was informed minutes after landing in Vancouver from a charity fishing trip.
“Oh, my goodness,” Hamhuis told Vancouver 24 Hours before taking a minute to compose himself. “I’m kind of rattled by that. He was a good friend of mine.”
Nashville teammate Shea Weber e-mailed QMI Agency: “Completely surprised. Obviously, I don’t know all the details but he was a great guy and teammate and my thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
Belak gradually moved into the main enforcer’s role in Toronto with the blessing of incubent Tie Domi. Between 2002 and ’04, Belak played 118 games with 13 points and more than 300 penalty minutes,
He spent half his career with the Leafs, but began as a first-round pick of Quebec in 1994 (ahead of Chris Drury), parts of three seasons in Calgary and following his seven years as a Leaf, made an impression in brief stints in Florida and Nashville.
— with files from Mike Zeisberger and QMI Agency.