Wade Belak always took one for the team.
Never was that the case more than a game last season when he was put in the Nashville Predators lineup to play defense — he was a regular forward — against the Detroit Red Wings, one of the NHL’s most explosive offensive teams. At the time, associate coach Brent Peterson ran the defense and throughout 60 minutes of hockey that night at Joe Louis Arena, he never called Belak’s name.
The fun-loving tough guy spent the entire night on the bench.
Two days later at practice, after Peterson lost his balance and fell to the ice, Belak quickly skated over and acted as if he had knocked down the associate coach.
“Don’t ever do that to me again,” he hollered, in obvious reference to the previous contest.
Everyone within earshot had a good laugh.
Wednesday, the mention of Belak was cause for sadness as news of his sudden death spread throughout North America.
Facts surrounding his passing were scarce. Police were called to an upscale hotel and condominium complex in Toronto early Wednesday afternoon where they found a dead male, later identified as Belak, 35.
The Predators, the last of five NHL teams for which he played, were notified by NHL security personnel. Franchise officials then contacted the family — his wife and two children were in Nashville — and spread word among the players.
“The National Hockey League family mourns the passing of Wade Belak, who competed to the utmost every minute of his NHL career,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “Our hearts go out to Wade's loved ones, his friends, his former teammates and to all who feel the horrible void left by this tragedy."
Belak was in Toronto in connection with Battle of the Blades, a reality television series that pits hockey players against one another in a figure skating competition. He was announced as one of the 2011 fall season participants on Aug. 22.
“Everybody knew when Wade Belak was in a room because he was big, he was loud and he was fun,” Predators general manager David Poile said. “… He has that presence when he walks around. It’s not like he goes unnoticed when he comes into a room.
“He kind of livens up the room. He brings energy. That’s one of the reason he played so long in the NHL. That’s why we wanted him on our team — because he brings the energy all the time. Every day he brought the energy.”
Belak retired during the 2010-11 season and ended a 15-year career that began after he was drafted in the first round (12th overall) in 1994.
He played 549 career NHL games during which he scored just eight goals but fought 125 times. His intimidating presence on the ice was in direct contrast to his personality off of it.
“Wade Belak was one of funniest dudes I had ever met,” center Blake Geoffrion, a rookie last season, said on Twitter. “Just was with him earlier this summer. Can't believe it.”
Belak is the third NHL tough guy in four months to die suddenly.
Derek Boorgaard of the New York Rangers was found dead in May as a result of a lethal mix of alcohol and oxycodone. Winnipeg forward Rick Rypien committed suicide on Aug. 15 in his Alberta hometown.
“All Players and NHLPA staff are sincerely saddened and shocked by the passing of former member Wade Belak,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said in a statement. “His affable personality made him popular with teammates, fans and media, and he was a hardworking, respected member of the Association.
“He will undoubtedly be greatly missed throughout the entire hockey community.”
Immediately after he retired, Belak transitioned into a role with the Predators’ broadcast team and was part of those plans for the future. He also was actively engaged in other possible post-career activities in Canada.
“When you think of Wade, you think of his personality,” Poile said. “… He was thankful that he had such a long career in the NHL, and I think he realized that if had done enough fighting, if you will, and it was time to move into a little bit more of a normal situation.”