Note: this was written one year ago today for one of my old hockey blogs, on hearing of the death of Toronto Maple Leafs (and former Coventry Blaze) enforcer Wade Belak. One year after his death, he is still hugely missed in Coventry. I was going to put a piece up marking the day, then revisited this and realised that I couldn’t possibly come up with anything better than I already had. This piece still remains one of the most painful pieces I’ve ever written. Posting it today as a tribute. Hopefully you’ve found peace, Mr. Belak. And thank you.
“They keep dying, Paul. They just keep dying”.
These were the words of my girlfriend, a fellow hockey fan, when she rang me to tell me of another death among the ranks of NHL enforcers on Wednesday night.
Today, the hockey world is mourning another fallen team-mate, with former Avalanche, Flames, Maple Leafs, Panthers and Predators enforcer Wade Belak being found dead in Toronto on Wednesday night at the age of 35.
He’s the third NHL enforcer to pass away this off-season, following Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien. And once again we see the tributes from players and fans on Twitter, the tribute articles like this one. We’ve been seeing them too often recently.
Wade Belak was a player known and respected throughout the world of hockey, and wherever he played he became a fan favourite for his sense of humour, willingness to stand up for his team-mates and honest, hardworking style. But he was never considered amongst the stars in the NHL.
After all, enforcers rarely get to be considered franchise players at any point in their professional careers. We can safely assume from the tributes of those that knew and played with him that he never really expected to be, either. Belak took immense pride in his role protecting his team-mates and often said he felt lucky to be able to earn his money playing a sport he loved.
But maybe, occasionally, he wondered what it would be like. All hockey players do. After all, they’re human.
When the NHL lockout took place and he left North America to play abroad during the long days of the 2004/05 season, Belak got to find out what it was like to be not the best player on not only a team, but maybe in a whole league.
He found himself in a city in central England, a country which views its hockey a little differently to North America. A country where hockey is a minority sport.
A country where, if they don’t go to the rink, fans can only see games televised through the team’s Internet sites, or through one hour-long highlights show a week and one live game a month on satellite TV (and when Belak was here, they didn’t even get that little luxury).
A country where soccer, rugby and cricket rule supreme.
But in the industrial city of Coventry, a slightly rundown but proud place famous for being one of the British centres of motor vehicle production (whose closest equivalent in the US both population and history-wise is probably Detroit, & is the home of the Coventry Blaze, one of the most successful teams in British ice-hockey) the name of Wade Belak is as legendary, if not more so, then it is in the hockey metropolis of Toronto. And right now, hockey fans in this town are grieving just as much as anyone in Maple Leaf, Avalanche, Panther, Flame or Predator country.
After all, Wade played for us, too.
The British Elite Ice Hockey League is a league where relative fringe AHL players can become superstars. Most of the overseas players come from either the ECHL or CHL. The top scorer last season was Jon Pelle, who scored 110 points last season after scoring 40 points the season before at the CHL’s Rapid City Rush.
In a league where CHL players can be superstars and the visit of a far-past-his-prime Theo Fleury is seen as the highest point of modern British hockey, in a country which has only ever had a handful of players even drafted to the NHL in the modern era, and only one even come close to making it (Northern Irish fans try to claim Owen Nolan, but most see him as North American along with Steve Thomas), fringe NHL players are a golden commodity.
When Belak came to the small, 2,500-seater rink in Coventry to make his debut there was barely a seat spare for his first game, and the excitement amongst hockey fans in my home town was palpable.
We’ve got an NHLer! Our small team has got a bona-fide NHL player!
Belak skated onto the ice to a warm reception. Even those who didn’t know hockey that well (and in Coventry there were a fair few at that time, as the team had only been in the city for four years in a city where soccer is king) knew that this guy was something out of the ordinary.
For a start, this was a player who, despite being questioned for his skill at an NHL level, projected a level of calm assurance which few Coventry fans had ever seen. His reputation may have come before him for those who knew, but even if you’d never seen a hockey game before that November night, you could tell that this was a big Canadian that you simply didn’t mess with.
He scored that night, a few hours after getting off a flight from Canada. If my memory serves me correctly, he also landed a hit that made the boards shake right round the rink on his first shift. The sharp collective intake of breath around the rink was clearly audible.
Jesus. So THAT’S what an NHL check looks like!
Throughout the rest of the season, Wade Belak worked himself deep into the hearts of Coventry hockey fans. His approachability off the ice (in Britain fans and players routinely mix in the rink bar after the game) meant that he was a fans’ favourite, and his sheer presence on it meant that the Blaze quickly became the most feared team in the league by opposition forwards. The defensive line of Belak and former ECHLer and DEL player Neal Martin was accepted by almost everybody as the best pairing in British hockey.
The team only lost once in regulation time between Belak’s signing and the end of the season, securing the league title with three games to go as the Blaze won every trophy it was possible to win in British hockey, including the playoffs.
And, just like in Toronto, any time a Blaze player needed someone to step in and back them up, Belak was there.
Blaze fans still talk of a late-season night in Cardiff, in the second leg of British hockey’s cup competition, the Challenge Cup Final. Blaze had won the first game in the two game series vs the Cardiff Devils (who had then-SJ Shark Rob Davison on their squad) 6-1, and with the match decided on aggregate goals and a five-goal lead, some thought the second leg was a mere formality.
It wasn’t. In one of the greatest games in Blaze history, the Devils went 4-1 up in their own rink in front of 2000 screaming Welsh fans and nearly a thousand travelling Blaze supporters, and came within a whisker of snatching the cup before Coventry stormed back to win the game 5-4 and the tie 11-5.
Up to this point (and beyond it, too), the NHL enforcer had mainly kept his gloves on, revelling in the increased icetime and offensive chances he’d been given. Coventry fans had seen Belak’s power once or twice, but he’d not fought for fun.
It was in this game, however, that the big blond boy from Saskatoon burned his name into the hearts of Blaze fans forever.
Late in a game that had already had several fights, Devils forward Russ Romaniuk checked Martin, the Blaze’s premier offensive blueliner, hard into the plexi from behind, injuring his collarbone.
With Blaze fans screaming for Romaniuk’s blood, Belak crossed the ice from his defensive side, grabbed the Devil, span him round, calmly dropped the gloves…and quietly and efficiently destroyed him.
The message was clear: You hurt my team-mate, whoever they are, and I will hand out justice in the most painful and immediate way possible.
It was a truly fine example of what an enforcer’s role is meant to be, executed by one of the best in the game.
After he returned to the NHL with Florida and Nashville, the BELAK #3 Maple Leaf shirts were still worn proudly at the Skydome, and still are today. Many Blaze fans consider themselves Leafs fans because of Wade’s time here.
And every off-season, when two or more Coventry hockey fans would meet and the talk would turn to off-season transfers and signings, someone would invariably say “wouldn’t it be great if we could get Wade back?”
Last Wednesday night, the Blaze had a pre-season game against those same Devils, and won 7-3. After the game, around 10pm British time, the fans were celebrating in the rink bar as always when news came through of Wade Belak’s death.
The noise level dropped, and the joy at a fine win which promised much for the coming season ebbed away as the news spread through the bar like a black cloud. Within minutes, people were on their phones, looking for confirmation.
Sadly, they got it.
In tribute to Wade, the Blaze are planning to hold a minute’s applause before this Saturday’s home game against Dutch side Geleen Eaters.
I can state with certainty that, while he may have only been part of Coventry hockey for a season, that round of applause will be loud and long.
In fact, it will be so loud that the hockey gods themselves will need earplugs. A man like Wade Belak deserves nothing less.
Farewell, Wade. Toronto and the rest of North America have offered their thanks, now fans of your British team offer ours.
From everyone involved in hockey in Coventry, thank you, sir. May you rest in peace.