Wade Belak’s final hours

The night before he was found dead of a suspected suicide, the former NHL enforcer was out on the town and in good spirits
DALLAS - OCTOBER 23: Wade Belak #3 of the Nashville Predators skates during warm ups against the Dallas Stars on October 23, 2010 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Wade Belak
Wade Belak’s final hours
Glenn James/NHLI/Getty Images

In broadcasting, as in hockey, reliability ranks high on the list of professional virtues. Dead air or squandered studio time are radio sins on par with an empty dressing-room stall before practice. The responsible party can expect retribution and, if he keeps it up, a ticket to the bush leagues.

Some athletes-cum-commentators take a while to grasp that, so the text Wade Belak sent Jeremy Bennefield last Tuesday night came as reassurance to the Nashville radio producer, who had been tasked with grooming the former NHL tough guy to host a weekly show on an all-sports FM station. “I’ll be there on Friday night,” wrote Belak, who was in Toronto at the time. “Staying until Sunday. Any way we can tape a show in that time slot?” The time signature on the message read 11:29 p.m. ET. Bennefield didn’t pick it up until 9:15 a.m. the following day, and he made sure to fire off a quick reply: “Yes, we’ll make it work.”

Three hours later, Belak was found hanging in his hotel room in downtown Toronto, the victim of an apparent suicide (though authorities have not confirmed the cause of death). And Bennefield has been pondering that text exchange ever since.“Somebody actually asked me whether I thought this was a reach-out,” he says from Nashville. “You know: whether Wade was seeking some sort of reassurance that he had something to live for.” But that doesn’t square with the man he had seen at a taping just days earlier, ribbing staff at 102.5 The Game, cracking jokes at his own expense. While recording the inaugural episode of his weekly show and podcast “The Game Changer,” the 35-year-old had enthused about setting down roots in Nashville, where he’d just wound down his playing career. “Based on my conversations with him, based on the texts that I got hours before the fact,” he says, “my impression is this wasn’t a guy looking for a way out.”

The living Belak will be remembered many ways: athlete, prankster, protector, family man and philanthropist. In death, he remains a cipher, as friends and former teammates struggle to square the favoured narrative of a hockey fighter in distress with the carefree man they knew. Yes, Belak suffered the miseries of his trade, they say—the injuries and painkillers and healthy scratches from games he’d hoped to play. And yes, he fought bouts of depression. His mother Lorraine confirmed as much prior to Belak’s private funeral in Nashville. Yet by all accounts his troubles ran nowhere near as deep as those of Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, tough guys to whom Belak has inevitably been compared because they too were found dead in what proved to be a dreadful NHL off-season.

Of course, informed skepticism is no match for moral outrage. The cluster of tragedies has given rise to long-overdue debate on the toll fighting takes on its practitioners, and whether fisticuffs must at long last be expunged from the sport. “I would prefer today, with the way the game has gone, to see fighting completely eliminated,” former Calgary Flames forward Jim Peplinski told the Globe and Mail in a typical comment. “I think most fights—90 per cent—add nothing to the game.” Part and parcel of that discussion is the grim roll of pugilists debilitated or destroyed by addiction and mental health problems: John Kordic, Dave Semenko, Link Gaetz, Gino Odjick, Louie DeBrusk, Kurt Walker, Darren McCarty, Brian McGrattan, to name a few from the game’s modern era.

Belak is a problematic fit on that list. He’d been paid handsomely for his services by managing to stay in the big league for 10 seasons, and if you believe those who knew him, he’d welcomed his exit cue. Dean Blundell, a radio morning man who got to know Belak well during his time in Toronto, recalls texting him last February after he’d been relegated to the minors by the Nashville Predators, the transaction that effectively ended Belak’s hockey career. For many players, it would have been a delicate moment, but not Belak. “He said, ‘Oh bud, I’m so happy to be done,’ ” says Blundell. “He had so many things he was looking forward to doing.”

Indeed, he’d cultivated an array of media contacts who were easing his transition into broadcasting, several of whom he conversed with in the days leading up to his death. He’d also signed up for Battle of the Blades, the hit CBC program where hockey players are paired with professional figure skaters for an ice-dancing competition. He was making up for lost time with his wife, Jennifer, and his young daughters, Alex and Andie.

Blundell doesn’t pretend to know what led Belak to the point he reached last week. But one thing, he says, is certain. “It’s unfair to lump Wade into some category of [tough] guys struggling with certain issues.” Over years of often highly personal conversations between the two, the host recalls, Belak never once complained about his job in hockey. “Put it this way, of all the people I’ve ever met, Wade wasn’t in anybody’s category,” concludes Blundell. “He was in his own category.”

If he’d been born a few years earlier, Belak might have avoided the enforcer label that he carried to his grave. As a junior, the straw-haired kid from North Battleford, Sask., personified the player NHL managers prized at the moment—big, obliging and handy with his fists. In 1994, the year the Quebec Nordiques drafted him 12th overall, Belak stood six foot four and weighed 215 lb., and while the scouts didn’t exactly rave about his skills, they loved the 226 penalty minutes he’d put up as a junior in Saskatoon. “When he blows,” read one report, “look out.”

Unfortunately for Belak, the game was starting to change. Coaches turned to strategic systems emphasizing judgment and mobility that Belak lacked, and learning on the job was not an option. Between 1997 and ’99, he saw action in just 30 NHL games, prompting Colorado to trade him to Calgary in 1999. The following season, he fought off the effects of a shoulder injury to record 122 penalty minutes in 40 games with the Flames, yet he remained very much on the bubble.

Only after the Toronto Maple Leafs claimed him off waivers in February 2001 did Belak make an impression of sorts in the league. By then, Belak had learned to do whatever it took to get into the lineup, moving from defence to forward if asked, beating on opponents when called upon. He’d also learned the power of his personality. Reporters gravitated to the tattooed quote machine despite his limited playing time, knowing he’d likely crack wise about himself or needle his teammates. One year at training camp, he and a TV reporter mocked up a story in which Belak purported, straight-faced, to be “ready to play on the first line” with star centre Mats Sundin. When asked for his reaction, Sundin broke up laughing.

It was vintage Belak, and reflected his willingness to let down his guard in ways his teammates never could. Tellingly, some of the most moving remembrances of him over the past week have come not from current players, but from the extended family of radio and TV personalities Belak had befriended and in some cases invited to his home. Blundell was one. So was Michael Landsberg, a TSN talk show host who described Belak as “far and away the closest friend” he had among athletes he’d interviewed.

Did all the bonhomie mask some deep torment that led Belak to take his life? Maybe. But his confidants resist the sort of tears-of-a-clown story that others seem eager to assign him. Nick Kypreos, a former enforcer with the Leafs, lived a few houses away during the seven years Belak played in Toronto. Far from suppressing his problems, says Kypreos, who now works as a hockey analyst on Rogers Sportsnet, Belak opened up to friends about his struggles with depression. The only thing that went unspoken between them related to fighting’s emotional toll. “You don’t really discuss your inner feelings about the job description with another guy who fights,” says Kypreos. “You just know.”

None of this is to say Belak was an open book. Paul Dennis, a psychologist who worked with the Leafs during Belak’s tenure there, was quoted widely last week noting that enforcers feel compelled to maintain an aura of invincibility, and therefore keep their darkest fears to themselves. There’s also no denying Belak was compelled to contemplate life after hockey earlier and more often than most 10-year NHLers. When the Leafs dealt him to Florida for a fifth-round draft pick in 2008, the writing was on the wall. He’d battled knee, shoulder and abdominal injuries to stay in the game. At one point in Toronto, he’d gone 143 games without a goal (he joked that he was trying to set a record). Florida dealt him shortly after the start of the following season to Nashville, where he played 92 goalless games over parts of three seasons before the Predators offered him a choice. He could report to their minor-pro affiliate in Milwaukee. Or he could join the Predators’ television broadcast team.

“He was really, really good,” sighs Bennefield. “He had perspective. He broke the game down. He explained it in a way that somebody who wasn’t a hockey fan still knew what was going on. But he didn’t dumb it down to the point that someone who does know hockey felt like they were being grammar-schooled.”

Bennefield isn’t the only producer lamenting Belak’s passing. Within a few months of his retirement, a menu of media opportunities lay before him, including a job as an ice-level reporter on TV and a regular gig as a hockey analyst on Sportsnet. “The Game Changer,” meanwhile, offered the chance to branch out into general sports talk. “We encouraged him to talk about more than just hockey—other sports, even stuff in the news,” says Troy Hanson, the station’s program director. For his first broadcast, Belak arrived with notes on U.S. college football.

Belak was a man on the fly when he arrived in Toronto on July 18 to prepare for Battle of the Blades, recalls Kim Navarro, the U.S. ice-dancing star whom producers paired with Belak for the competition. The two met for the first time in their hotel lobby on the eve of the show’s obligatory “boot camp,” a crash course designed to bring the hockey players up to speed on figure skating. “We ended up talking for a couple of hours,” Navarro recalls. “He told me all about Nashville and his work down there, all about his family. I knew then it was going to be a really fun experience.”

Juggling his obligations while preparing for his job as a live hockey broadcaster wasn’t easy. Still, friends say he appeared equal to the challenge, working hard to maintain personal relationships as he hopscotched between cities. Four days before his death, he returned to Toronto and sent Blundell a text that read, “Are you alive?”—referring to the weeks that had passed since they’d chatted. They traded a few one-liners and agreed to get together the following week.

Meantime, over the weekend, Belak began training with Navarro and choreographer Renée Roca at an ice complex in neighbouring Mississauga. He told Navarro that his daughter Andie, 7, suffered from Tourette’s syndrome. So the pair chose a Tourette’s clinic at Toronto Western Hospital as the recipient of their winnings on the show. They also chose music for their routines—Belak favoured Genesis and Usher, and danced mawkishly for Roca and Navarro in his attempts to win them over.

As for their on-ice session, “our biggest challenge was skating well while laughing,” Navarro recalls. After one manoeuvre, Belak stood back and critiqued her style: “Some of the other girls can do that better than you,” he deadpanned. And on Monday, he had Roca and Navarro in stitches over dinner at Earl’s. The last time she saw him was Tuesday night, after a few of the contestants had gathered for dinner at a Yorkville sushi restaurant. “We were scheduled to skate the next day at 4 p.m,” she recalls, voice catching. “So we just confirmed that and went our way.”

The text to Bennefield would follow, but from that point, Belak’s movements become murky. He was spotted with fellow Battle contestant Todd Simpson at a hip bar on King Street West called the Underground Garage. But he left the place in good spirits, according to a witness who met him outside at 2 a.m. and who later spoke to the Toronto Star. The next day, he failed to show up for a radio interview, and hotel staff went to check on him. They found his body at 1:40 p.m., and as the news broke, the tributes from his former teammates, coaches and opponents began pouring in. “Great personality in the game of hockey,” wrote Paul Bissonnette of the Phoenix Coyotes on his Twitter feed. “He was such a bright light,” said former Leafs coach Pat Quinn.

The most poignant nod, however, came the day of his funeral, when Nashville forward David Legwand bought a full-page ad in the Tennessean newspaper paying tribute to Belak’s character. It included photos of Belak in an AC/DC T-shirt working the phones at a telethon, and wearing a toy fireman’s hat while reading to elementary school students. The images stood in contrast to those of the players gathered at his funeral—to a man, they wore stricken looks and $2,000 suits. But it was an inspired choice, nonetheless, reminding us that, as surely as he was one of them, Belak was very much one of us.