Three tragedies in three months. All equally mystifying and horrible for hockey. Yesterday, popular tough guy Wade Belak was found dead at his Toronto condo. The recently retired big man, who made a living with his fists for 15 years was 35. Belak concluded his career in Music City with Nashville. The Predator organization released a statement:
“The entire Nashville Predators organization and family is shocked and saddened by the sudden and untimely passing of Wade Belak. Wade was a beloved member of the organization, a terrific teammate and wonderful father and husband who will be greatly missed. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Jennifer and children Andie and Alex. We offer our full support to them at this very difficult time.”
Regrettably, Belak became the third enforcer to die over the summer, joining brethren Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien. The stunning news passed like wildfire in the early evening on the East coast, sending more shockwaves throughout the hockey world. erhaps former Leaf teammate Owen Nolan summed it up best when he tweeted:
"I'm lost for words. Wade Belak RIP my friend."
The original Quebec Nordique first round selection in '94 (12th overall) did it the hard way, playing for five different teams, including the Maple Leafs where he was most popular sticking up for teammates for nearly seven seasons spanning '00-01 to '07-08. Belak began his career with Colorado following their first Cup and played parts of three seasons before moving onto Calgary (included in the Theo Fleury blockbuster) where he started to establish himself, putting together consecutive 100+ penalty minute (PIM) campaigns in '99-00 and '00-01.
That included a trade to Toronto, who were serious contenders. Over 16 games, he even notched his second career goal (first since '97-98 w/Avs) while adding an assist along with 31 PIM. Though he didn't get in a postseason which saw the Leafs go toe to toe with the defending champion Devils before falling in a grueling second round rematch, Belak continued to impress Leaf Nation. In '01-02, he registered a career high 63 games along with four points (1-3-4), plus 142 PIM. It was that year when they made it to the Conference Finals before losing to Carolina when Belak debuted and scored his only career playoff goal during 16 games that Spring. Not surprisingly, he racked up 18 minutes. The following year ('02-03), he established career bests with three goals, six assists and nine points to go with 196 PIM.
Belak registered at least 100 penalty minutes in seven straight NHL seasons sans the lockout. Of his eight goals, seven came wearing the Maple Leaf. Seventeen of 25 helpers also came with Toronto where he played 318 of 549 career games, including a personal best 65 in '06-07. The following year, he was dealt to Florida where he had a brief stay before being traded to Nashville, where he spent a majority of his last three seasons before being waived last 2/25. On April 9, he announced his retirement. Belak finished with 1,263 PIM in 549 contests.
"Now I think people will realize the tough job of playing in the NHL and the tough job of being a heavyweight," former NHLer Georges Laraque said. "It takes a lot mentally. It's really hard."
"When you retire after being a heavyweight for as many years as you played, most of those guys didn't make [much] money, so there's no options for them after. So, after you have all this pressure of playing and fighting for a living, now you have to fight to live when life after hockey is over."
Belak's tragic death leaves more questions than answers. We're seeing more and more extreme cases of Anxiety/Depression in athletics. Not every single one has resulted in tragedy. However, it begs the question if troubled athletes are getting enough attention. As someone who deals with this important life issue daily, it can be very challenging. Just imagine how it must be for a player, who's dealing with more pressure along with extensive travel and expectations.
It's hard to pinpoint the reason(s) why the NHL lost three popular players who all were tough customers. Former troubled star Theo Fleury overcame great obstacles that included a long bout with alcohol and drugs stemming from anxiety and depression due to sexual abuse at the hands of monster Graham James. He had several strong tweets on post-retirement/depression. This was one of the highlights:
"The drug companies make billions on pain meds with no consequences or claim any responsibility for overdoses or deaths."
This is an epidemic that isn't covered enough. While it's probably not the only reason, there needs to be more emphasis on the drug industry so we can prevent future tragedies such as Derek Boogaard's. It's important for the NHL to closely examine each case and discover if there are any similarities between Belak, Boogaard and Rick Rypien. What we do know is that Boogaard was an accidental overdose of dangerous painkiller oxycodone mixed with alcohol while Rypien's is rumored to be suicide. Privacy concerns have kept anything from being official.
According to an ESPN report, Belak hung himself. At least that's what one person who had knowledge of the case believes.
All these factors must be considered along with a way to encourage more troubled athletes to come forward and seek help. Sometimes, it can be a matter of pride. Even for myself, I kept everything buried inside and it finally manifested itself five years ago. Anxiety and Depression can strike at any time. It can be lethal. The sooner you deal with it, the better."It's not only about the deaths, it's the deaths that surround similar type players," former Calgary GM and current NHL Network analyst Craig Button told The Canadian Press. "It's not just getting hit in the head, it's everything that goes with that (enforcer) role. I think that people are paying very, very serious attention to concussions and blows to the head and the role of the enforcer.
"I don't think anybody can stop until we really understand the impact it has not only physically, but emotionally as well."
Prayers go out to the Belak family and friends. Our thoughts are with the Boogaard family and the Rypien family. Let us pray.