A sad off-season in the National Hockey League continued with the death of former Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames tough guy Wade Belak, who took his own life, multiple sources told CBC News late Wednesday.
Belak, who played parts of 14 seasons in the NHL with five teams and had retired on March 8, was found in the 1 King West Hotel and Residence, just blocks from the Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto at about 1:40 p.m. ET, according to local police. He was 35.
Born in Saskatoon and raised in Battleford, Sask., Belak is the third NHL player to die in less than four months.
In mid-May, New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, 28, was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment from a drug overdose, while forward Rick Rypien was found in his Alberta home earlier this month. The one-time Vancouver Canuck, who was suffering from depression, took his own life.
"As everyone knows there have been some real losses that we've experienced over the years, but it never seemed like there was three in a row like this," said Pat Quinn, who coached Belak when he played in Toronto. "Anybody that's around this game, you feel like it's part of your big family, and that includes the fans and all the people that support these players and get to know them. We've lost a lot in the last three months.
"You don't replace it. You just hope the ones that are left behind can live through it and be all right."
Former NHLer Barry Potomski, who had 227 penalty minutes in 68 games, collapsed and died at a fitness club on May 24.
Belak, who maintained residences in B.C. and Nashville —where he last skated in the NHL for the Predators —was in Toronto to film the third season of Battle of the Blades, the CBC's successful reality-show mixture of hockey and figure skating, which begins Sept. 18.
"We are shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the sudden passing of Wade Belak. We send our thoughts and condolences to his family and friends. He will be greatly missed," Kirstine Stewart, CBC executive vice-president of English services, said in a statement.
The Predators also released a statement: "The entire Nashville Predators organization and family is shocked and saddened by the sudden and untimely passing of Wade Belak. Wade was a beloved member of the organization, a terrific teammate and wonderful father and husband who will be greatly missed.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Jennifer and children Andie and Alex. We offer our full support to them at this very difficult time."
The Belak family is not commenting at this time, CBC News in Saskatchewan reported Wednesday evening.
Belak was a first-round pick of the Quebec Nordiques (now Colorado Avalanche), drafted 12th overall in 1994. He broke into the NHL with the Avalanche during the 1996-97 campaign, playing five regular-season games. Belak appeared in eight games the following season and 22 in 1998-99 before moving on to the Calgary Flames for two-plus seasons.
It was during Belak's next NHL stop in Toronto, where he spent the next six-plus seasons, that the player realized he had a future in the league.
"That's where I learned to play forward and defence," Belak told the Toronto Star in May of this year. "I knew my role was the enforcer type, but I learned a lot of things along the way from people like [former NHL tough guy] Warren Rychel."
Belak played in 340 regular season and playoff games for the Leafs.
"Wade was extremely popular with his teammates, the staff, and Maple Leafs fans everywhere," read a statement from the team. "He was the consummate team player on and off the ice. He will be deeply missed in the hockey community and our thoughts and prayers are with Wade's family and friends during this challenging time."
After a short stint with the Florida Panthers, Belak joined his fifth and final team in Nashville. He played two-plus seasons with the Predators before the grind of the job had given Belak arthritis in his pelvis and he chose to end his playing career.
There were hospital visits, cortisone shots and needles directed into his midsection, followed by three to four days of recovery.
"My body was telling me it was ready [to retire]," Belak told the Star. "I thought last year I was ready, but when the [Predators] offered me a chance to come back, I jumped at it. I was helping the younger guys, as you get older, your role changes and I think I was more of a mentor … a good guy to have in the dressing room, lighten up the locker room."
He went on to launch a career in media as a sideline reporter for radio during Predators broadcasts while collecting his salary of $575,000 US.
Quinn last saw Belak in the spring and thought his former player was sure to find success in the new endeavours.
"He was very excited that he was having an opportunity to maybe change his career and get into some commentating work," Quinn said. "I was excited for him too. It was kind of one of those nice meetings where you walk away happy. He seemed delighted this was going on.
"He's certainly a good-looking face — he's a handsome guy — and one that could speak and speak well. What a great combination."
Belak finished his playing career with eight goals and 33 points in 549 NHL regular-season games, collecting another goal in 22 playoff contests. He fought 136 times, according to hockeyfights.com.
Former Leafs development coach and current York University sports psychologist Paul Dennis spoke to CBC News Network on Thursday morning about the mental aspect of being an NHL tough guy.
"It takes its toll on you and you're in a position where you cannot not do that," he said. "You have to do that, that's your job and people don't realize...I don't think they appreciate how difficult it is."
He also believes enforcers may have a different mindset, creating emotional burden.
"The toll it takes, I think there is this sport culture that young athletes learn at a very young age to suppress emotions," he said, "And if you demonstrate [that] you might be vulnerable or weak mentally, or the athletes may think ,'They want me so I'll keep it to myself.'
"I'm not saying that's what happened with Wade but from my experience from dealing with other athletes that's the mindset."
"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. Our deepest condolences go out to Wade’s family and friends during this very difficult time."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, in a statement, added: The National Hockey League family mourns the passing of Wade Belak, who competed to the utmost every minute of his NHL career. 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."
An outgoing personality, the six-foot-five, 220-pound Belak often brought a comedic presence to the dressing room, trading barbs with teammates, offering his quick wit in interviews, and providing funny and entertaining quotes for reporters.
He also would poke fun at himself and became a regular on Leafs TV and on morning radio in Toronto with alternative rock station The Edge 102.1
"This is the worst summer I've ever seen with regards to tragedies in the NHL. I pray this all ends here," Dave Scatchard, who retired recently from the NHL because of concussion problems, posted to his Twitter account.
Fellow forward Jordin Tootoo, a former teammate of Belak's in Nashville, Tweeted that it was "very sad to loose a great teammate and a better person in Wade Belak."
Belak was asked by the Star about the best thing that happened to him as a player and he answered by saying the first goal he scored in the NHL with Colorado in 1997-98 and his last, with Toronto, in 2007-08.
"Fans were chanting my name in the streets," he said, "it felt like I was mayor for a week."With files from The Canadian Press