I often joked that Wade Belak was my personal hero. It was not because he scored a lot of goals (he never scored a single one as a Predator), but because he was a guy that got paid league minimum to play in a handful of games each season when the roster was either severely depleted or some goon on the other team had a bone to pick with ours that night. He was our goon -- the "enforcer" for the Nashville Predators for roughly two and a half seasons. He was the guy you sent out to as an act of open aggression against the opposing team. If a defense-man leveled one of our forwards, you can bet that Wade leveled him. It's a tough sport. And fans loved it. He retired to go work in the booth, but carried with him the weight of a 15-year playing career in the NHL.
I had met Wade several times at fan events, easily one of the more accessible members of the team outside of the coaching staff. Most recently, I had a hat signed by him. It was a generic hat and that signature has already rubbed off. I treated it mostly as a gag for my "favorite" NHL player. The guy was paid more per playing minute than a lot of stars, solely because he played so few. With him was a little girl, clutched around his left tattooed bicep. She was rocking back and forth and smiling as the lines of people walked by. She was with her dad, and life was very good. He looked tired, but still cracked a smile as a fan joked with him. He was known for his great attitude.
Today, that little girl and her sister lost their dad. From the organization:
Nashville, Tenn. (August 31, 2011) - "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. 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."
I suppose the good lord's depth chart was low on enforcers, because he has taken three this summer from us. We don't know the circumstances surrounding Wade's death, but the writing is on the wall. Men who gave their bodies and fists of fury for a sport they loved have been taken from us.
This comes from The Cannon, a blog for the Columbus Blue Jackets:
After the losses of Derek Boogard and Rick Rypien earlier this year, it's utterly senseless that another NHLer who made his bones with his fists as much as his hockey skills has been lost to an early grave. It's barbaric and obscene that we're talking about a 35 year old father of two (Jesus Christ, he's only five years older than I am) who will leave behind a family wondering what they should have seen, what should have been done, what someone could have said.
I love hockey. I love the energy, the speed, the hits, the excitement, the scoring, the beauty.
But I don't love the fights. Not anymore. Not at this cost.
Because I love the game, I cannot cheer for watching guys like Derek Dorsett or Jared Boll dropping the gloves anymore. Not when it means that each time they drop the gloves I could end up reading their obituary in the Dispatch five or six years down the road. Not when it means they're far more likely to end up with concussions or brain damage that could severely impair their ability to function as they age.
Nothing that happens in a hockey game, up to and including the Stanley Cup, has ever been worth the cost of a man's life, and now we've seen the butcher's bill paid three times over in the span of one summer.
He goes on to call for the commissioner and board of governors to put an end to sanctioned fighting. The entire post is worth a read. We cheer for the big hits and hay-makers, but we ache for the lives and quality of life it costs. It is an unbalanced equation. I do not know what can be done to prevent these tragic stories from playing out in the future. But we as fans owe it to two young girls who lost their dad today to figure it out before the price is paid again.