FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

BY: Bruce Berlet

Not surprisingly, the mother of Wade Belak said the former NHL player suffered from depression before committing suicide last Wednesday.

“I think he was taking control of that,” Lorraine Belak said in a phone interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company from Nashville, Tenn. “He didn’t talk about it all the time or a lot.”

The body of the 35-year-old Belak was found in a downtown luxury hotel and condominium in Toronto where he was staying as he prepared for the reality show “Battle of the Blades,” the CBC’s version of “Dancing With the Stars.” A person familiar with his death said Belak, who had eight goals, 25 assists, 136 fights and 1,263 penalty minutes in 549 NHL games for five teams in 14 seasons, hanged himself just hours after joking with 2006 Olympic pairs silver medalist Tanith Belbin on a Twitter post.

Belak, who announced his retirement from hockey on March 8 after being waived by the Nashville Predators, was the third current or former NHL enforcer to die suddenly in the last 31/2 months. New York Rangers wing Derek Boogaard was found dead of an accidental overdose of alcohol and painkillers on May 13 at 28, and Winnipeg Jets center Rick Rypien committed suicide in his home on Aug. 15 at 27 after battling depression for more than 10 years.

“As everyone knows, there have been some real losses that we’ve experienced over the years, but it never seemed like there was three in a row like this,” Pat Quinn, who coached Belak when he played in Toronto, told cbcsports.ca. “Anybody that’s around this game, you feel like it’s part of your big family, and that includes the fans and all the people that support these players and get to know them. We’ve lost a lot in the last three months.

“You don’t replace it. You just hope the ones that are left behind can live through it and be all right.”

In a statement released by the Predators, Belak’s last team, his 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.”

More than 300 friends, family members and former teammates gathered Sunday afternoon for a private funeral at Woodmont Christian Church in Nashville. His family asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to The Andie and Alex Belak Scholarship Fund. Checks can be made payable to Woodmont Christian Church or Jennifer Belak, who married Derek on July 20, 2002 and gave birth to the couple’s two daughters, ages 7 and 5. The address to send checks is 3601 Hillsboro Pike, Nashville, TN 37215.

Belak had remained with the Predators as a member of its radio broadcast team and was scheduled to be the team’s sideline television reporter this season.

“He was a very special guy and was loved by everyone,” former Rangers tough guy Tie Domi told The Canadian Press. “He was a teammate, a great, great teammate. He was a special kid.”

Domi also talked about depression.

“This has to do with depression and getting the right message out there,” Domi told The Tennessean. “That depression can be beat. That’s what I want to do for him and his family is to get the right message out there because the wrong message has been sent. Not just about hockey. This is about life. There are 3,500 people in Canada who commit suicide a year, 80 percent of them are men.

“Wade was alone, and he can’t be alone when you have these things going on. You have to call somebody.”

Domi spent five years in Toronto with Belak, and the two often sat side-by-side in the team’s dressing room. Domi and many current Predators players front office personnel attended the funeral, along with Maple Leafs and former Hartford Whalers general manager Brian Burke.

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Steve Sullivan, a former teammate in Nashville, talked about how much Belak loved his daughters and how he would do anything for his family. Others remembered his ability to settle down a dressing room with his self-deprecating wit and recalled his involvement in the community, including his stint as a volunteer firefighter.

In Saturday’s Tennessean, the Predators took out a full page tribute to Belak that celebrated his contributions both on and off the ice.

“There’s no question something like this is not going to go away,” Nashville GM David Poile told The Tennessean. “This is going to have a big impact on our whole organization because of what Wade’s presence meant there.”

As the hockey world tries to come to grips with the death of three players in such a short period of time, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association began the process of examining “whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare and minimize the likelihood of such events taking place.”

The three deaths prompted the league and Players’ Association to look into ways to help players, according to a joint statement released by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr.

“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.”

That’s great, great news in light of the sad, sad happenings since mid-May. Life is never easy, but every measure possible should be taken to combat such unfortunate occurrences, just as the NHL is trying to combat senseless hits to the head.

CALLAHAN TAKING CONTROL ALREADY

Many believe former Hartford Wolf Pack right wing Ryan Callahan will succeed Chris Drury as Rangers captain after the final year of the Trumbull native’s five-year, $35.25 million contract was bought out on June 29.

Callahan has enhanced such thoughts during several informal practices at the Madison Square Garden training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y. The workouts are significant mainly for bonding purposes and to develop chemistry among about 25 players, including newcomers Brad Richards and Mike Rupp and the Rangers’ first-round pick (20th overall) in 2009 and top-rated prospect, left wing Chris Kreider, who trained with his future teammates before heading back to Boston College for his junior year.

On Tuesday, Jim Cerny of BlueshirtsUnited.com reported right wing Marian Gaborik arrived in New York over the weekend and joined 30 other members of the Rangers’ organization at the informal workout. At one point during a scrimmage, Gaborik skated a few shifts alongside Richards and left wing Brandon Dubinsky, a trio that could be the Rangers’ No. 1 line this season. Though the scrimmage was wide-open and virtually non-contact, even if Gaborik did have a hard open-ice collision with Sean Avery, Cerny said Gaborik did skate well and even scored a goal.

Callahan has been the ringleader of the player-organized workouts, demonstrating he is ready to accept the captaincy mantle. Some thought Richards, the plum of free agency this offseason who signed a nine-year, $60 million contract with the Rangers, was the leader to succeed Drury. But the homegrown Callahan has excelled on Broadway for several seasons, finishing at the Rangers’ second-leading scorer (48 points) in 2010-11 behind Dubinsky (54 points), his former linemate with the Wolf Pack, despite missing 22 games with a broken hand and a broken ankle from blocking shots, another of his fortes.

Callahan has already had captaincy practice as an alternate captain and was often “the man” that the media sought after games. As he did with the Wolf Pack, Callahan addressed tough questions and set the tone for how the team should play with his gritty and inspirational style and efforts.

So it’s not surprising that Callahan is one of the fans’ favorites, having won the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award for his hard work in 2008-09 and 2009-10. So it wouldn’t be surprising if coach John Tortorella named Callahan captain during training camp.

Tortorella and Callahan were among 20 players and coaches who took a bus tour of New York on Tuesday afternoon with children directly affected by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The team’s goodwill mission brought the players, coaches and kids, who are from the Garden of Dreams Foundation, to three New York City Fire Department houses in downtown Manhattan and then to Tower 7 at the World Trade Center site for a reception.

On Thursday night from 7 to 9, former Wolf Pack/Whale players Marc Staal, Artem Anisimov, Michael Sauer, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Del Zotto and Mats Zuccarello, along with Brian Boyle, Derek Stepan and Erik Christensen are scheduled to take part in the Rangers’ Fashion’s Night Out at the NHL Flagship Store at 1185 Avenue of the Americas in New York. The players will be available for autographs, and there also will trivia contests, prizes and giveaways throughout the evening.

Finally, on Saturday, the Rangers Season Subscriber Fan Fest, postponed from Aug. 27 because of Hurricane Irene, will be held at the MSG training facility. Anyone who had a ticket to the ticketed event should refer to it for schedule information. All tickets remain valid and will be honored. For complete information, season ticket holders can call 212-465-6073 or visit www.nyrsubcenter.com.

THOMAS RECEIVES AWARD FROM ALMA MATER

Goalie Tim Thomas, who backstopped the Boston Bruins to their first Stanley Cup title in 39 years, received the 2011 University of Vermont Alumni Achievement Award during a two-day visit with pro hockey’s most prized trophy to Burlington, Vt.

Thomas played at Vermont from 1993-97, during which he was a ninth-round pick of the former Quebec Nordiques in 1994. He played several years in the minor leagues and Europe before making it to the NHL at age 28 with the Bruins, finally emerging as their starting goalie at age 32. He won the 2009 Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie and was as a backup to the Buffalo Sabres’ Ryan Miller for Team USA in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where the Americans won the silver medal.

Thomas won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs at 37, becoming the oldest and second American-born player to earn the award after Cheshire native and Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, who led the Rangers to the 1994 Stanley Cup, their first in 54 years. On June 22, Thomas was awarded the Vezina Trophy for the second time.

Thomas now has one of the most prized possessions of his alma mater and received a hero’s welcome during a parade and reception in Burlington.

A Thomas stick also became part of the equipment of seven champion Bruins to become part of the Hockey Hall of Fame. The gear also included skates and gloves from captain Zdeno Chara, a stick from Patrice Bergeron, gloves from Milan Lucic, shoulder pads from Shawn Thornton and an equipment bag from Shane Hnidy. Immediately after the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in Game 7 in Vancouver, equipment personnel Keith Robinson, Jim Johnson and Matt Falconer raced onto the ice to bag up the discarded gear. … South Windsor native and former Washington Capitals captain/left wing Chris Clark has accepted a training camp invitation from the Bruins. Clark, a rugged left wing who was a third-round pick of the Calgary Flames in 1994, has 103 goals and 111 assists in 607 NHL games with Flames, Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets. Others in Bruins camp will include Avon native Jared DeMichiel, who backstopped Rochester Institute of Technology to 2010 Frozen Four and signed a one-year contract with Kalamazoo of the ECHL last week.

FORMER WHALERS COACH, GM HOSPITALIZED

Former Hartford Whalers coach and general manager Paul Holmgren, now GM of the Philadelphia Flyers, is hospitalized in stable condition following a bike accident in southern New Jersey on Monday.

According to a report on CSNPhilly.com, Holmgren, 55, was riding his bike in Avalon, N.J., when he suffered a broken shoulder, broken ribs and other injuries in the accident. Holmgren was taken to Cooper Medical Center in Camden, N.J., for treatment. A spokesperson for the hospital only said Holmgren was in stable condition and refused further comment.

Speaking via Flyers Senior Director of Communications Zack Hill on Tuesday morning, Holmgren said he is “sore but otherwise in good spirits.” Sources told CSNPhilly’s Tim Panaccio that Avalon police had no details of how the accident occurred in the initial report filed with them. … There’s a nice story on theahl.com by NHL.com writer Tal Pinchevsky on former Wolf Pack All-Star center Corey Locke, who looking to turn a career season into a legitimate NHL opportunity. In 2010-11, the 27-year-old Locke played in his fourth straight AHL All-Star Game and won the AHL scoring title (86 points) and Les Cunningham Award as league MVP despite missing 11 games because of an injury and call-up to the parent Ottawa Senators. He also won his second Calder Cup with the Binghamton Senators before getting married a month later in Burlington, Ontario. Perhaps most importantly, Locke played five games with Ottawa, registering his first NHL point. “I’m glad I got called up a few times,” Locke said. “Obviously getting my first NHL point was fantastic. It was a great experience and hopefully there’s more to come this year.”

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. … Twenty-four players and the Rangers and Whale brass leave Friday for Traverse City, Mich., where the Rangers will be one of eight teams in a prospects tournament. The Rangers play Saturday against the St. Louis Blues at 7 p.m., Sunday against the Dallas Stars at 6 p.m., practice on Monday and play the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. Placement in the round robin will determine whom each team faces in the championship round Sept. 14 at a time to be determined before the Rangers’ traveling party returns to New York that night. Most of the players then will report to Rangers training camp in Greenburgh on Sept. 15 before workouts begin the next day. MSG Network will show all the Rangers games for the first time. … Individual tickets for Whale home games went on sale Saturday at the XL Center box office. The Whale starts their 15th season Oct. 8 in Glens Falls, N.Y., against the Adirondack Phantoms, with the home opener a week later at 7 p.m. against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. It’s the first of 12 Saturday home games, as 90 percent of the Whale’s 38 games at the XL Center will be played on weekends and during vacation and holiday breaks. Tickets, starting at $14 for adults and $12 for youth, are available at the box office Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. or can be purchased online at www.ctwhale.com and through TicketMasters charge-by-phone at 1-800-745-3000. For information on season seats and mini-plans, call 860-728-3366 or visit www.ctwhale.com.

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