The National Hockey League community was forced to deal with the tragic loss of one of its own again Wednesday after Wade Belak
, who played in the League for 14 years, was found dead in his Toronto condominium. Belak was 35.
Although Belak's playing days ended this past season after he was waived by the Nashville Predators
in February, he was so popular around the League that it seemed certain he would remain in the public eye. He stayed with the Predators in an organizational role and was set to appear on CBC's upcoming season of "Battle of the Blades" -- a Canadian figure-skating reality show similar to "Dancing with the Stars."
In a statement released Thursday evening, Belak's wife Jennifer said: "We are overwhelmed and deeply touched by the outpouring of compassion and support since Wade's passing. Wade was a big man with an even bigger heart. He was a deeply devoted father and husband, a loyal friend and a well respected athlete. This loss leaves a huge hole in our lives and, as we move forward, we ask that everyone remember Wade's infectious sense of humor, his caring spirit and the joy he brought to his friends, family and fans. The coming days will be very difficult for our family and we respectfully ask that we be allowed to grieve privately."
The sudden loss of the popular Wade Belak
has hit the hockey world hard. (Photo: Andy Devlin/NHLI)
A first-round draft pick of the Quebec Nordiques in 1994, Belak played for five NHL teams during his career: the Colorado Avalanche
, following Quebec's relocation to Denver in 1995, Calgary Flames
, Toronto Maple Leafs
, Florida Panthers
and finally the Predators. He made plenty of friends at each stop, and those former teammates reacted upon hearing the news Wednesday with sadness and disbelief.
"The entire Nashville Predators
organization and family is shocked and saddened by the sudden and untimely passing of Wade Belak
," the Predators said in a release Wednesday night. "Wade was a beloved member of the organization, a terrific teammate and wonderful father and husband. He 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."
Similar sentiments poured in from many of the organizations for which Belak played, as well as those who were touched by his infectious personality during his time in the game.
"We are deeply saddened with the news of Wade’s passing," the Flames said in their statement. "We are proud that Wade wore the Calgary uniform and we will always remember him as member of the Flames Family. We would like to express our sincere sympathies to the Belak family. This is a terrible loss of a vibrant young man; a man with great character who truly loved the game of hockey."
NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes
worked several times this past season with Belak on the NHL Network's On the Fly program. He said the two, who played against each other often during their NHL careers, were on their way to becoming fast friends off the ice.
"The NHL is a tight-knit family," Weekes told NHL.com. "That's what makes this so devastating. You know there is a ripple effect for Wade's family and all the people he touched in his life as an athlete and human."
While doing appearances for the NHL Network, Weekes said he and Belak enjoyed plenty of laughs.
"We exchanged numbers and info, we decided to keep in touch," Weekes said. "We talked a lot [on- and off-air] about the League and especially Nashville's great run in the postseason. We're basically the same age. I enjoyed that time together and talking about different guys we played with."
Finding a way to fit into almost any hockey setting was one of Belak's greatest gifts, according to those who knew him best.
Forward Joel Ward
played with Belak in Nashville. Wednesday night, he told the Washington Times that Belak was one of the best team-first guys he has encountered during his career.
"He was one of the best guys, great team guy – always there for the boys," Ward said. "Whether he was playing or not he was always a positive guy.
"I was just fortunate to get a chance to play with him and hang out with him for two years in Nashville. [When you hear this news] you're puzzled and just sad."
Former teammates took to Twitter to express sadness and disbelief over the loss of their friend.
was one of the funniest dudes I ever met," Predators forward Blake Geoffrion
tweeted. "Just was with him earlier this summer. Can't believe it Thoughts and prayers to his fam."
NHL veteran Owen Nolan
, who played with Belak in Toronto, tweeted: "I'm lost for words. Wade Belak
RIP my friend.
From the time Belak started playing high level hockey -- he joined his hometown Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League in 1993 -- there were teammates in every dressing room that had similar stories to share.
Bob Woods, now an assistant coach with the Washington Capitals
, is one such player. The two played together for the Hershey Bears in the mid-1990s and won a Calder Cup as defense partners during the 1996-97 season.
"A great guy," Woods told Tim Leone of the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. "He was my D-partner. He was a fierce guy on the ice, but you don't find a nicer guy off the ice. I thought he always played the game honest, with a lot of respect.
"I didn't know him that long, but he made a big impression.You always bumped into him. Every time you saw him, it was like it hadn't been long since you've seen him. He was a very personable guy. He was a funny guy."
And Commissioner Gary Bettman expressed his condolences with the following statement: "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."
The National Hockey League Players' Association also issued a statement Wednesday.
"All Players and NHLPA staff are sincerely saddened and shocked by the passing of former member Wade Belak
. His affable personality made him popular with teammates, fans and media, and he was a hard-working, 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."
Belak is the third active or recently retired NHL player to die in the past five months. Derek Boogaard
of the New York Rangers
passed away on May 13, while Rick Rypien
, who had signed as a free agent this summer with the Winnipeg Jets
, passed on Aug. 15.
The three deaths have prompted the League and the National Hockey League Players' Association to examine the safeguards already in place to ensure player safety and make any changes that might be necessary, according to a statement released by both parties Thursday afternoon.
"Everyone at the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players’ Association is profoundly saddened by the loss, within a matter of a few weeks, of three young men, each of whom was in the prime of his life.
"While the circumstances of each case are unique, these tragic events cannot be ignored. We are committed to examining, in detail, the factors that may have contributed to these events, and to determining whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare and minimize the likelihood of such events taking place. Our organizations are committed to a thorough evaluation of our existing assistance programs and practices and will make immediate modifications and improvements to the extent they are deemed warranted.
"It is important to ensure that every reasonable step and precaution is taken to make NHL Players, and all members of the NHL family, aware of the vast resources available to them when they are in need of assistance. We want individuals to feel comfortable seeking help when they need help.
"NHL Clubs and our fans should know that every avenue will be explored and every option pursued in the furtherance of this objective."
Surviving Belak are his wife Jennifer and their two children, Andie and Alex. In lieu of flowers the family will accept donations to The Andie and Alex Belak Scholarship Fund. Checks may be made payable to Woodmont Christian Church/Belak (3601 Hillsboro Pike, Nashville, TN 37215).