By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Sep. 1) – The tragic death of Wade Belak from an apparent hanging-suicide is both astounding and inexplicable. If earlier this week someone had asked me to name five people I know that would be least likely to kill themselves (based on the societal stereotype), I almost certainly would have mentioned Belak… perhaps before anyone else. This was a guy that exuded joviality, frivolity and self-deprecation – a personality trifecta that no one would affiliate with suicide.
That’s why I believe a number of people – though well-intentioned – may be jumping to conclusions… drawing an automatic correlation between Belak and the two other NHL enforcer-types that have died in recent months: Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard.
This isn’t to suggest, for a moment, that the NHL; the NHLPA or any other authoritative body should ignore the obvious connection and similarities among the three dead players. Every legitimate question that is asked deserves to be answered. It is, however, blatantly unfair to the deceased; their families; other NHL enforcers (past or present), and to the multitude of those suffering from clinical depression, to assume we know why any of these people died.
To hear legendary tough guy Georges Laraque on the radio today wondering, “Jeez, am I next?” sent chills down my spine. What a dreadful burden to put on a guy that played the same role as Boogaard, Rypien and Belak, but may have never had a suicidal inkling.
If these deaths somehow trigger an emotional safety-valve in others that have played the role; or if they prompt the hockey powers-that-be to thoroughly study and research any possible link between the enforcer’s task, retirement, depression and – ultimately – suicide, then something positive may come from these gut-wrenching losses. Otherwise, it isn’t appropriate to draw conclusions without first considering the hundreds-of-thousands of suicide victims that have never laced up a pair of skates, or the overwhelming number of former hockey fighters that are, today, living reasonably happy lives.
WADE BELAK STRETCHES BEFORE A GAME WITH THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS.
As with almost everyone that knew him, a smile crosses my face when I think of Wade Belak. I can hardly fathom that he is dead; more-so, that he caused his own demise. From the standpoint of a reporter that covered the Maple Leafs through his entire tenure in this city, Belak was simply a delight… a player that would comment on any hockey-related issue, no matter how contentious. In that regard, he was a lot like such fellow-NHLers as Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick… but without the edge. Though Hull and Roenick were refreshingly candid, there always seemed to be a tinge of anger and resentment; perhaps even self-righteousness, when debating hockey matters. Belak, on the other had, was gifted with the ability to make a point inoffensively. He wasn’t a guy that “got mad” at anything.
This encompassed even his own misfortune.
Toronto hockey fans may recall an incident from Mar. 20, 2004 – the season prior to the lockout. The Leafs were playing Colorado at the Air Canada Centre and Belak was jostling in front of the Avalanche net with a big, Finnish-born defender named Ossi Vaananen. Suddenly, a loud noise echoed through the arena, prompting just about everyone watching the play to do a double-take: Belak had cracked Vaananen over the helmet with his stick, and the Avs’ blue-liner crumpled in a heap. Such action was entirely uncharacteristic of the rugged, yet honest Leaf forward and he incurred an eight-game suspension.
Early the following night – a Sunday – I returned home from a family gathering to receive a phone-message from Pat Park, the Maple Leafs director of media relations. Pat informed me of Belak’s sentence and said that I should phone him to arrange an interview with the player. I called Pat a few moments later and was told it may be awhile before Wade got back to me, as a dozen-or-so fellow reporters had already made requests. We had something live on the radio that night – perhaps a Raptors game – and I remember feeling no particular urgency to get the interview done. It was roughly 7:30 p.m. and my goal was to have a report on the air in the 11 o’clock sports update.
Not more than three minutes later did the phone ring. It was Belak, calling to talk about the incident. I remarked how surprised I was to hear from him so quickly, given Pat Park’s warning. I’ll always remember Wade’s reply: “Well, I wanted to call my favorite reporter, first.” Whether he was sincere – or feeding me a load of fertilizer – didn’t matter. I quickly switched on my tape machine… and Wade became Wade. He spoke honestly and with contrition about the previous night’s episode – insisting there had been no pre-meditation on his part, but fully accepting the NHL’s decision to suspend him. And, of course, there was levity. “How could I possibly bring my stick down on Ossi when he’s as tall or taller than I am?” Belak asked with a wink and a chuckle.
Few Maple Leaf players of recent ilk have received as emotional a response from the ACC crowd as did Belak exactly three years to the night of the Vaananen incident. On Mar. 20, 2007, Belak – without a word – calmly dropped his stick and removed his gloves after a faceoff against the New Jersey Devils. On the ice, opposite him, was Cam Janssen: New Jersey’s resident tough guy who had plastered Leafs defenseman Tomas Kaberle into the side-boards at the Meadowlands with a late hit 18 nights earlier, causing the Czech-born player to miss eight games with a concussion. Janssen knew it was time to answer the bell and he absorbed a rather severe pummeling from Belak, whose name was delightfully chanted by the appreciative ACC audience the rest of the night.
So, maybe there is something underlying and sinister in the depression that is tragically coming to light among former players who attained fame and popularity with their thankless roles. It must be terribly difficult to walk away from the applause. In and of itself, this doesn’t explain – as previously mentioned – why a spate of accidental and suicide deaths have occurred this off-season and not in any prior one. There is every chance that the incidents involving Boogaard, Rypien and Belak are unrelated and entirely coincidental. There also exists the possibility of a unique and undeniable correlation.
What I’m suggesting is that we give this process the time it deserves before offering advice, or engaging in the Canadian pastime of blaming the NHL for all that is evil. The way I see it, Wade Belak would want nothing less.