Coming to grips with Belak tragedy
LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
|The hockey world is still trying to figure out how Wade Belak (left) could take his own life when he seemed to have so much ahead of him. (Reuters)
TORONTO - A week ago, Troy Hanson thought he’d made Wade Belak the happiest guy in the world.
“I said: ‘I just want you to talk, I want you to be Wade’,” said the station operations boss at 102.5 The Game in Nashville. “His face just lit up. This (a series of podcasts for the city’s new all-sports station) was going to be his forum. He’d knocked off a couple of podcasts we’d put in the can. He went up to Toronto on Monday, sent a text Tuesday night or Wednesday morning that he’d be back in town on Friday. He sounded so good. And then we saw the reports from the Toronto Sun.”
Police say Belak took his own life at a King St., condo hotel, unbelievable as that sounds to those who thought he had the world by the tail. Though his playing career had ended after 14 seasons, his gregarious manner gave him far more off-ice options than most 35-year-old players of his ilk. Before leaving Nashville, he stopped by the Predators offices, ribbing his ex-coaches about how tough he’d be on them during a part-time TV colour gig he’d agreed to.
“Beyond the shock of him leaving a wife (Jennifer) and two young daughters (Andie and Alex), we’ve lost a colourful character,” Hanson said. “He could speak to the people, he was connected to all the social media and I think he would have been very big in this business. I don’t like to use the term a TMZ world, but that’s what it’s becoming and Wade had the right personality for it.”
Which made his tragic exit all the more baffling. Last Friday, Belak appeared to be in typical irreverent form while on his busy Twitter account.
“I hope for the Islanders’ sake Hurricane Irene wipes out Nassau Coliseum,” he teased. “The only thing keeping that place up are the rats holding hands.”
He’d been in Toronto in July for a Battle Of The Blades boot camp and returned this week to meet his figure skating partner to tape September’s shows. On Tuesday, Belak tweeted that the day’s session had been a painful one — “my body is killing me” — and later posted he was partying with fellow contestant and ex-NHLer Todd Simpson at a downtown bar.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have much to say,” Simpson said when contacted Thursday by the Sun. “Maybe in a couple of days.”
Simpson did tweet his condolences to Belak’s family on Friday: “Wade was a wonderful man, a loving husband, father and a great teammate. All my sympathies go out to his family. He will be dearly missed.”
When a TSN vehicle came to pick Belak up at his residence to tape a talk show early Wednesday, there was no response and his body was discovered soon after.
“I know he was popular in Toronto, but he was equally popular here,” said Gerry Helper, the Predators’ senior vice-president. “If he came into a quiet dressing room, it wasn’t quiet for much longer. He was no different on Monday than the first day he came here.”
Belak was the third NHL enforcer to die under strange circumstances this summer.
“It’s going to be a while before we’re able to move on,” Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos told The Fan 590 on Thursday.
Kypreos’ career was ended in 1997, a fight that resulted in a severe concussion. He’s watched as Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and now Belak died during, or right after, their careers on the game’s wild side. The NHL and the Players Association announced Thursday they would be taking a close look at any links to the three deaths, while maintaining that each appears to be a unique case. Last month, both sides spoke of reviewing the substance abuse and behavioural program.
But Kypreos warned the public against jumping to conclusions that enforcers are the most at-risk players.
“Everyone’s going to be drawing a co-relation, you name it, concussions, head trauma, depression,” Kypreos said. “I’m not one to bury my head in the sand. I hope the NHL and the PA find a way to get answers. Form a committee with former and current players, go get guys that have handled the (retirement) transition successfully. Get the guys who struggled and find out reasons why. Go get a medical staff that can speak about what the discoveries are, what’s going on psychologically as well as physically.
“I’m all for that. but before everyone comes to the conclusion that this is the third tough guy and that it’s directly related to getting hit in the head and now it’s time to stop, that’s putting things way ahead.”