Wade Belak was the reason I watch the NHL.
Not Wade specifically, but players like Wade. He embodied the rough stuff that first drew me to the game: The fights and fighters and the warrior code that went with them.
He embodied the unpredictable nature of the game: How loud did the arena get when Belak — career shooting percentage of 3.8 percent — scored any of his eight career goals?
He embodied what it meant to be a fan favorite, from his mischievous charisma — remember when he said he wouldn't piss on Sean Avery if he were on fire? — to his interaction with the paying customers. He was a player who averaged 7 minutes and 18 seconds a game in his 549 career appearances, but damn if you couldn't locate him from the cheap seats every time he hit the ice.
We love hockey because of its character. We also love it because of its characters.
We've probably all made a joke or two at the expense of Wade Belak's career at some point in our fandom, but it wasn't scorn: It was a knowing appreciation of the guy's uncanny ability to endear himself to a fan base and work his ass off despite his limitations.
Belak was found dead in a Toronto condo on Wednesday, leaving this world at just 35 years old and leaving behind two daughters ages 7 and 5.
I'm 34. My daughter's 15 months old. I held her a little tighter tonight as I attempted to fathom how distraught, disconnected, desolate and defeated one must feel to leave a child behind. It's beyond my mental capacity to comprehend it.
So now it's the summer of Boogaard and Rypien and Belak, and the only people more annoying than the ones drawing conclusions about hockey based on these deaths are the ones fretting around those conclusions being drawn. It's a trend, it's a tragedy; hockey fans can already hear the ticking clock of "60 Minutes" preparing some sweeping condemnation of the NHL for allowing these deaths to occur.
Let'em have at it. They'll say what they want, conclude what they will. It's on us, on the League and on its players to find causes, solutions, a way to save lives.
I've seen less demonization of enforcers today than I've seen pleas for the NHL and the NHLPA to rethink and revamp their approach to mental health — and not just the kind that involves concussion protocols.
Tyson Nash, a former NHL pugilist now serving as an announcer for the Phoenix Coyotes, tweeted:
And Theo Fleury, who knows a thing or two about hockey and depression, offered this advice:
Other reactions to Wade Belak's passing, first from Bruce Arthur:
And that was Wade. Like Boogaard, Belak was born in Saskatoon, and he smiled and cracked wise as he clung tenaciously to the edge of the National Hockey League. Once, when I asked him if he ever got special treatment in Toronto as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he grinned and said, "I've got a sick table at McDonald's, that's about it." When he was traded to Florida at the trade deadline after everyone had spent the week speculating about Mats Sundin, he said to TSN, "I blame Mats." When asked once about his numerous tattoos, he said, "Yeah, I'll be 60 or 70, all wrinkled and hangin' out at the old folks' home. But I'll look tough, and I'll be getting all the women."
He was, in other words, a real person, and seemed so comfortable in his own increasingly inked skin.
Our first night in California my friend Ray and I found ourselves drinking at the Saddle Ranch under the allure of a mechanic bull. Early in the evening the DJ played New Orleans Is Sinking by the Tragically Hip and it immediately ousted the other Canadian in the bar, Wade Belak.
My friend felt compelled to buy the other Canadian a shot of Tequila, it was then that we learned who Wade was, at that time a defenseman for the Calgary Flames. Wade invited us to join his table and we spent the evening downing tequila, riding the mechanical bull, and listening to his stories about life in the NHL.
While the night was hazy for all of us, and when we left Wade was close to passing out at the table, I learned that night what an incredibly friendly, open, down to earth guy that Wade Belak was. I would never meet Wade Belak again, but would be left with one of my better drinking stories
Finally, here's a collection of tweets from NHL players and writers about Belak's passing, as they remember the Colorado Avalanche, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and Nashville Predators fan favorite: