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So Long, Wade Belak

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Wade Belak never seemed to take himself too seriously. That’s why I liked him. That’s why, like everyone else, I was shocked to hear of his death. He’s gone way too soon. But his death, his apparent suicide, serves as just another reminder that no matter what you see on the surface, everybody’s got demons, demons that they’re fighting, every single day.

There are so many questions, and, frustratingly, zero answers. The pictures of Belak and his family, his wife and kids, are just gutting. What drove Belak to kill himself, and leave them behind? Why wasn’t Belak’s death treated with the same sensitivity as Rick Rypien’s? Was it because Rypien’s fight with depression was public knowledge? Was Belak tortured because he was an NHL enforcer? Was he depressed? Did he reach out for help? Did he have a history of concussions? If he was lost, “retired” at 35, knowing only a life in and around hockey, it didn’t come across. By all accounts, he was upbeat, content, the same old Wade Belak, and keeping busy.

It doesn’t make sense. Suicide never does, I guess. But it’s impossible not to make the connection, to tie Belak’s death to Derek Boogard’s, and Rypien’s. It’s impossible, when three hockey players, all enforcers, all so damn young, are found dead over the summer, to think that fighting still has a place in professional hockey. I’m done. I’m out. I don’t want to see it anymore. It isn’t worth it. Nobody can tell me that it is.

Wade Belak had this self-deprecating way of making himself seem like a regular guy. Like any other guy. He was like me, like you, like all of us, except that he played ice hockey, and fought, for a living. I’ll remember Belak as a Toronto Maple Leaf, for his wit, his interviews that were always so refreshing, especially compared to those of his teammates. I’ll remember Belak for the way he stood up for his teammates, especially for Tomas Kaberle, and for the goal he scored on December 4, 2007, against Nashville, the one he waited almost four years to get, the one that had the entire Air Canada Centre chanting his name. It was the last goal he ever scored in the NHL.

Wade Belak was only 35-years-old. Boogard and Rypien, even younger. I can’t help but think about how young they were, over and over and over again. There’s something about these three men dying that’s left me cold, that’s taken away from the invincibility of a professional athlete, the guy who’s “living the dream,” even the enforcer. Even though I know, to begin with, that the invincible pro athlete doesn’t exist, that he’s a construct, a product of television, and the Internet, and a vicious news cycle. These guys, they’re just like us. Sometimes they’re not happy. Sometimes they hate their job. Sometimes they drink to ease the pain. Sometimes they’re so fucking afraid of the future, they’d rather not even face it. The deaths of Belak, Boogard, and Rypien have taken away from the innocence of hockey, and of sport. The game’s supposed to give, not take away. Enough.

Image credit: Reuters, via daylife.

Written by Navin Vaswani

September 1st, 2011 at 9:05 am