FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

BY: Bruce Berlet

Another tragic story rocked the pro hockey world Wednesday when another former tough guy battling personal issues, Wade Belak, was found dead in his Toronto condominium.

Belak, who was 35, announced his retirement from hockey in March and was training to compete in “Battle of the Bladers,” a Canadian Broadcasting Company show that is hockey’s version of “Dancing With the Stars.” Dying seeming impossible after he had posted on Twitter on Tuesday night, joking with 2006 Olympic pairs silver medalist Tanith Belbin.

But a few hours later, Belak was dead, and The Associated Press reported Thursday that a person familiar with his death said Belak hanged himself at a downtown luxury hotel and condominium building. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity Thursday because details of the investigation were confidential.

“At this point it’s non-suspicious,” Toronto police spokesman Tony Vella said Thursday. “We will not provide any further information on a non-suspicious case.”

Belak is the third current or former NHL player to die suddenly in the last 31/2 months. Former New York Rangers wing Derek Boogaard died on May 13 at 28 of an accidental overdose of alcohol and painkillers, and Winnipeg Jets center Rick Rypien committed suicide in his home on Aug. 15 at 27 after battling depression for more than 10 years.

Like Boogaard and Rypien, Belak was known for his pugilistic prowess. In 14 NHL seasons, Belak had eight goals, 25 assists and 1,263 penalty minutes in 549 games with the Colorado Avalanche, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and Nashville Predators. Belak had remained in the Predators organization.

“Of the three, Belak is the one who, publicly anyway, came across as the most happy and carefree and at peace with himself,” TSN.com’s Bob McKenzie wrote. “At the time of Boogaard’s death, it was well known by his friends, family and the hockey community that Derek was suffering terribly on every level from post-concussion syndrome. His cause of death was ruled as accidental, a lethal combination of alcohol and prescription pain medication. Rypien’s official cause of death was never formally acknowledged, but it was well known he had been dealing with depression for years and had taken a medical leave of absence from the NHL dating back to last November.

“In the case of Belak, his many friends and former teammates, basically anyone who knew him, would be quick to say Belak came across as happy and well-adjusted, a player who had decided to retire this summer to pursue a career in broadcasting.”

Toronto Sun hockey writer Steve Simmons said players are often misunderstood.

“As much as we think we know players, we watch them on the ice, we see them grow into men, we get to know how they will respond to a postgame question and a dressing room quip, we don’t, and can’t, ever know what’s inside their minds or their hearts,” Simmons wrote. “Sometimes, with a man like Bob Probert, with a man like Derek Boogaard, the demons were apparent from the outside. Their issues were public. Their deaths, difficult, tragic, complicated, were not stunning in a way that Belak’s passing is stunning.

“Sometimes, you can see a train wreck before the eventual crash. But who saw anything here? Who didn’t feel like they were out of breath, punched in the gut, wanting to scream but not knowing what to scream, when learning about Belak on Wednesday afternoon? His friends had to feel that way. His teammates, the same. And I can’t begin to imagine what this must be like for his wife and the children he would talk about, joke about.”

In a statement Wednesday night, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said, “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.”

One of those in the NHL fraternity suffering most was former goalie and current NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, who worked with Belak on NHL Network during the 2011 playoffs when Belak was as a guest analyst.

“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.”

Born on July 3, 1976 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Belak was a first-round pick (12th overall) of the former Quebec Nordiques in 1994. After the franchise moved to Colorado in 1995 and renamed the Avalanche, Belak played in 35 games over three seasons but didn’t get notable ice time until appearing in 40 games for the Flames in the 1999-2000 season. After splitting the 2000-01 season between Calgary and Toronto, Belak remained with the Maple Leafs until 2008, when he was traded to Florida for a fifth-round draft pick. In November 2008, Belak was dealt to Nashville for Nick Tarnasky. He spent the remainder of his career with the Predators before being waived on Feb. 25. After clearing waivers, Belak announced his retirement on March 8.

Belak could play forward or defense, and his primary role was as an enforcer. While his offensive numbers were modest, he was a friendly and easy-going person who was popular with the Toronto media and fans and was scheduled to participate on CBC’s upcoming season of the popular “Battle of the Blades.” Belak had hosted a short series on Canada’s BiteTV known as “The Wade Belak Show,” and during his time in Nashville, he hosted a radio show on 104.5 FM “The Zone.”

“Wade Belak 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.”

Calgary Herald hockey writer Bruce Arthur also was touched by Belak.

“If he was a tortured enforcer, he was also a great actor of the age,” Arthur wrote. “I never met a happier-seeming guy in hockey. He always seemed at ease; he was freshly retired, and in town to appear on the CBC’s reality show, where he surely would have been the star. Except he’s dead, and hockey feels sick again, right to its stomach.

“Of all the guys who play that increasingly anachronistic role, Belak was the last guy you expected to die young. He apparently told a Calgary radio station last week that he was happy and healthy, and his head wasn’t ringing. When he talked about his retirement with the National Post’s Sean Fitz-Gerald last week, he said, ‘I thought about having a news conference, but I didn’t want to make an ass of myself.’ ”

The Maple Leafs, Flames and Predators all released statements expressing their sadness and stressing the popularity and character of Belak. That’s a common trait between Belak, Boogaard and Rypien, all of whom have sadly left this Earth far too soon. Hopefully they’ve all found peace together in The Great Hockey Arena in the Sky.

ICEHOGS SIGN FORMER WOLF PACK DEFENSEMAN

Former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Brian Fahey has signed an AHL contract with the Rockford IceHogs, the top affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Fahey, 30, has 50 goals and 117 assists in 446 AHL games, including four goals and 25 assists in 60 games with the Hershey Bears last season, when he was also scoreless in his first seven NHL games with the Washington Capitals.

Fahey was a member of the 2008 Calder Cup champion Chicago Wolves, when he had career highs of 14 goals and 37 points in 76 games after not being re-signed by the Rangers after a so-so season in which he had four goals and 20 assists in 66 games with the Wolf Pack.

The native of Glenview, Ill., was a fourth-round pick of the Avalanche in 2000 and played four years at the University of Wisconsin before turning pro. … Chadd Cassidy and Jay McKee have been named assistant coaches of the Rochester Americans, who again are the top affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres. Also, longtime Americans standout Chris Taylor has been hired as development coach, and Bob Janosz had been named goaltending coach. The four will join the staff of Ron Rolston, who was named head coach on July 27.

WSE EXECUTIVE TO BE HONORED

Howard Baldwin, president and CEO of Whalers Sports and Entertainment, will receive the Connecticut Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s 2011 Community Leader of the Year Award at its Sportscasters’ Super Ball Nov. 12 at The Club at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

The black-tie gala honors state sports stars and community leaders while raising money and awareness for Cystic Fibrosis. The gala was established in 2002 by ESPN’s Joe Tessier and Chris Berman to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and includes dinner, dancing and a live auction.

“Howard Baldwin is the definition of a community leader,” said Paul Drury, director of special projects at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. “He brings people together, simple as that. The Winter Fest at Rentschler Field last February is a perfect example. There were pee wee, high school and NHL alumni games, and thousands of fans to watch. But most importantly, he gives back to the community he believes in.”

Past Community Leader honorees have included philanthropist Mark Wilson, The Hartford CFO Liz Zlatkus, Open Solutions CEO Louis Hernandez and IAE President Jon Beatty. Former sports honorees have included: Geno Auriemma, Jen Rizzotti, Jim Brown, Steve Young, Brian Leetch, Luis Tiant and Dwight Freeney.

For tickets ($200) or to get involved with the foundation, contact Drury at 860-632-7300 or pdrury@cff.org

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