TORONTO – When Russ Courtnall received a last-minute call to join “Battle of the Blades,” he knew he wasn’t prepared—not for the physical demands of the show, or to leave his family on short notice to compete in Toronto.
He still said yes almost immediately.
Courtnall was quick to agree because he knew he was being asked to fill the skates of Wade Belak.
While Courtnall didn’t know the former Toronto Maple Leaf personally, Belak’s recent death—which police have described as an apparent suicide—still resonated.
When Courtnall was 13, his father took his own life. In recent years, the former NHLer has dedicated himself to helping those with mental health problems and raising awareness about the issue, and he sees “Blades” as an opportunity to continue that dialogue.
“(Joining the show) was a tough family decision, because it was out of the blue, but it was an easy decision to step up and fill the role to try to skate for Wade and do the best that I can do,” Courtnall said Friday during an interview at the MasterCard Centre rink, where preparations for Sunday’s first live performance show were underway.
“My father’s story is important, (Belak’s) story is important, and the more we talk about it, the better it is for so many people out there who are going through similar situations.”
And Courtnall is hardly the only “Battle of the Blades” hopeful to hold Belak’s memory close.
During a media gathering with seven of the eight pairs set to compete on the CBC-TV show—an elimination-style reality program that pairs figure skaters with hockey players—Belak’s name came up again and again among a group of skaters still shaken by his sudden death.
The 35-year-old Belak was found dead on Aug. 31 in a downtown Toronto hotel, the same building where other contestants were staying.
Montreal-born skater Marie-France Dubreuil was on the ice when she heard the news, practising with her partner, former NHL defenceman Bryan Berard. They were both scheduled to fly to their respective homes later that day, and struggled to make sense of what had happened.
“We were just devastated at the airport, not understanding what was going on—I mean, Wade being such a joyful guy in appearance,” said Dubreuil, who remembered Belak as the “connector” of the group, whose sense of humour and friendly demeanour united the skaters.
“So yeah, it was devastating.”
New guest judge Darcy Tucker also has a connection to Belak. They were teammates together on the Leafs, where the notoriously pesky Tucker knew he could rely on Belak to have his back.
“I used to like to annoy people a lot when I was out there playing, (so) he was protecting me quite often … he saved my rear end a few times out there, that’s for sure,” said Tucker, adding that joining the show under these circumstances is “difficult.”
“It’s a sad situation for our family, we all knew each other, the families knew each other. Obviously, we’re going to miss him. He was a huge part of what made me a better person when I was playing with him.”
“Those are the memories that I’m going to take from this situation.”
And, according to those present Friday, the typically breezy “Battle” won’t shy away from reminding its viewers about the life and untimely loss of Belak.
Courtnall and U.S. ice dancer Kim Navarro—who had previously been partnered up with Belak—are skating for a clinic that specializes in caring for patients with Tourette’s Syndrome, a condition that afflicts one of Belak’s daughters. Dubreuil and Berard will dedicate any winnings to a youth mental health charity called Do It For Daron, named to honour Ottawa Senators’ assistant coach Luke Richardson’s daughter, who committed suicide at age 14.
Meanwhile, Belak’s No. 3 adorns the ice at the MasterCard Centre, and the show’s co-host Kurt Browning says that the skaters have kept some items backstage that remind them of Belak.
Browning said he noticed something different when the skaters first met for training camp early in the summer: a more fiercely competitive atmosphere. That feeling quickly evaporated after what happened almost a month ago.
Indeed, while the pre-“Battle” period is typically filled with light-hearted trash talk and chest-puffing declarations, few contestants seem to be focusing on the competitive aspect of the show this year.
“It’s kind of become something else,” Navarro said.
“Right now, it’s hard to think about the competition, because it’s a little different withthe circumstances.
“When I first signed up, you think: ‘Yeah, I want to be there in the end.’ Now? You think more that you just want to have a good representation, you want to skate for Wade’s family and his charity.”
“So it feels not as focused on the competition at this moment.”