TORONTO – A feeling of disbelief began giving way to introspection as the hockey world sought to come to terms with the loss of a third NHL tough guy in a matter of months.
Wade Belak’s apparent suicide in a downtown Toronto hotel and condo sent shockwaves through the hockey community, prompting the NHL and NHL Players’ Association to launch an immediate review of its programs to determine “whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare and minimize the likelihood of such events taking place.”
Belak’s death closely followed those of New York Rangers forward Derek Boogaard and Winnipeg Jets forward Rick Rypien. However, unlike those men, the 35-year-old gave off no signs of trouble prior to being found dead on Wednesday afternoon.
“From what I understand right now, there were no warning signs,” NHLPA special advisor Mathieu Schneider said Thursday in an interview. “Maybe we’ll learn something different over the next few weeks. But everyone that I’ve heard from so far is just in shock.”
The alarming news left plenty of questions unanswered: Could anything have been done to prevent it? Is there a connection between the difficult job all three players performed on the ice and the tragedies that claimed them? Should the role of fighting in the NHL be re-examined?
They were asked both publicly and in private by everyone from league executives to fans to other NHL players.
“There was a bunch of us actually golfing yesterday and as soon as we found out, you stop right away and think: ‘This is the third guy already this summer,'” said Maple Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn. “It’s hard to grasp and see why it’s happening.”
Belak recently retired after 14 seasons in the NHL and had moved on to a burgeoning television career. He was in Toronto to appear as a contestant on CBC’s “Battle of the Blades” and was scheduled to work on game broadcasts for the Nashville Predators this coming season.
With a big personality that matched his six-foot-five frame, Belak was universally described as a fun-loving guy that lit up a room with his infectious attitude.
There were no signs of internal struggle or distress—even for those close to him. Belak’s father, Lionel Aadland, last spoke to his son a couple weeks back and thought he was in good spirits.
“I think the Wade Belak that people in Toronto saw off the ice was the way that we knew (him) his whole life,” Aadland told CP24. “He had quite a sense of humour and we enjoyed that—as everybody else did. We just never saw anything different.”
That friendly demeanour was even on display earlier this week at an arena in nearby Mississauga, Ont., when Belak was besieged by members of a youth hockey team while training for “Battle of the Blades.” He was more than happy to sign autographs and pose for photos.
One day later, he was found dead in a hotel room.
Toronto Police indicated they do not suspect foul play and a source familiar with the situation confirmed to The Canadian Press that he hanged himself.
Belak leaves behind wife Jennifer and daughters Andie and Alex. The family will hold a private funeral service in Nashville on Sunday.
“Wade was a big man with an even bigger heart,” Jennifer Belak said in a statement. “He was a deeply devoted father and husband, a loyal friend and a well respected athlete.
“This loss leaves a huge hole in our lives and, as we move forward, we ask that everyone remember Wade’s infectious sense of humour, his caring spirit and the joy he brought to his friends, family and fans.”
His death will also be accompanied by soul searching throughout the sport.
Fighting has long been considered the toughest job in hockey, but it is bound to be closely scrutinized with three enforcers dying over a heartbreaking four-month span. Phoenix Coyotes tough guy Paul Bissonnette understands why some have drawn a link between the demanding job and string of tragedies.
“Just playing that very limited role, in and out of the lineup, you feel worthless,” said Bissonnette. “I could see where that would probably wear on guys along with the fighting and getting hit in the head constantly.
“The amount of mind games we play with ourselves is very high and that’s what people need to realize.”
At least one general manager believes the deaths will prompt some discussion about whether fighting still has a place in the sport. It’s a debate that has been simmering in recent years.
“I’m sure it will have an impact,” said Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis. “I’m sure it will create debate. I know in the case of Rick (Rypien), I don’t think we ever felt his role and how he played the game was influential in what happened. Perhaps we are wrong.
“We haven’t felt that. We didn’t feel that before when Rick struggled with some issues and we certainly don’t feel that now.”
Rypien left the Canucks on two separate occasions while struggling with depression. He was found dead on Aug. 15 at his off-season home in Coleman, Alta., and police said his death was not suspicious.
Boogaard, 28, died May 13 at his Minneapolis apartment due to an accidental mix of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone.
After news started circulating about Belak’s death on Wednesday night, Bissonnette’s father stopped by his house to make sure he was OK.
Like Belak, the 26-year-old was a standout defenceman in junior who turned himself into a forward that fights in order to make it to the top as a pro. He acknowledged that it’s a little scary to see what’s happened to other enforcers this summer.
“I haven’t been doing this as long as these guys have, the three guys that passed away,” said Bissonnette. “For me to comment on how I’m going to be in five to 10 years, I don’t know.”
Answers aren’t very easy to come by right now.
With files from Jim Morris in Vancouver.