This is a short piece I wrote for The Herald on the untimely passing of Wade Belak.
I've been reading some of the things being reported about how he died, and honestly, I'm done for the night. I am still in shock.
Anyway, thought some of you all might want to read this. So here you go:
BY GEORGE RICHARDS/grichards@MiamiHerald.com
Wade Belak enjoyed being a walking contrast. An imposing figure at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, he loved the stares he got as he pulled himself out of the Mini Cooper he drove around South Florida.
One of the top fighters in the NHL – his vicious punch once cracked an opponent's helmet – Belak always had a smile on his face, the first to scoop up a teammate's child when they visited the locker room. Everyone, it seemed, loved the big redhead from Saskatoon.
Belak, who played parts of two seasons with the Florida Panthers, was found dead at the age of 35 on Wednesday afternoon in Toronto.
“He was as friendly and nice a person as I have ever met,'' said Panthers assistant general manager Mike Santos. Santos brokered the deal with the Panthers to bring Belak to Nashville when Santos served in that same capacity with the Predators on Thanksgiving Day in 2008.
“He would give you the shirt off his back. He did so much for kids and our community. He was wonderful. I'm shocked. I'm sad. I don't know what to say. It's a real shame. He's the best.''
Belak played for Colorado, Calgary, Toronto, the Panthers and Nashville. The Predators waived Belak this past season and he decided to retire after clearing waivers.
Belak, who played in 32 games with the Panthers with no goals nor assists, played in a total of 549 NHL games. Belak served as a commentator for Predators radio during the 2011 postseason and was scheduled to take part in the Canadian reality series 'Battle of the Blades.'
Belak's cause of death has not been determined. Wade Belak is survived by his wife Jennifer and their children Andie and Alex.
“Wade was a beloved member of the organization, a terrific teammate and wonderful father and husband,'' the Predators said in a statement. “He will be greatly missed.''
The NHL lost one of its great characters on Wednesday after Wade Belak was discovered dead in Toronto.
Belak is the third league enforcer to die this summer.
The 35-year-old, who recently retired, was as popular a player – among teammates, media and the fans in the cities he played – as there was in the league.
Belak spent parts of two seasons with the Panthers, coming to Florida in 2008 during Jacques Martin's final trade deadline day in which he was both coach and general manager. The Belak trade was almost overshadowed by the Chad Kilger debacle (JM also traded for Toronto's Kilger, but he decided to retire than ever report to the Panthers. More on that at the bottom of the story.)
Belak, who also played for Colorado, Calgary, Toronto and Nashville, only played in 32 games for the Panthers and didn't score a goal or have an assist.
But the big redhead with the permanent smile – at least he was always grinning off the ice it seemed – hasn't been forgotten around these parts.
One of my favorite stories came after Belak had been traded to Nashville and he sparred with the Panthers Steve MacIntyre. The punches Belak tossed were so heavy they cracked MacIntyre's helmet. Belak was such a good guy, MacIntyre had no trepidation in sending the helmet to Belak for an autograph.
Belak signed the helmet right above the gash he left with his bare hands.
Earlier in that March 2010 game at BankAtlantic Center, Belak jokingly puckered his lips toward the camera and a teammate when caught on the arena's Kiss Cam.
“He walloped me pretty good,'' MacIntyre said then. “But it was pretty cool. I'm just glad that punch didn't hit my bare head. My head might still be rolling down the ice.''
Martin put Belak on waivers in November of the 2008-09 season, a very unpopular move. Belak wasn't getting much playing time – despite signing a two-year deal with the team that previous offseason – and Belak was thrown for a loop. He never saw it coming.
“They bring me down here to play, and I've seen my time dwindle from eight minutes to three shifts a game,'' Belak said. ''I'm not a liability. I'm tired of hearing how we need offense. Other tough guys play and are contributing. It's tough to fight from the bench.''
A few days later, Belak said "My wife is crushed. We love it here. I don't want to go anywhere else.''
Belak also noticed the passion of the fans here. Here's what I wrote then:
"I can't believe there was so much support from them,'' he said.
When I told him the Panthers don't have a whole bunch of fans, but the ones they do have are extremely loyal, he added "I'm starting to realize that.''
After clearing waivers, the Panthers ended up trading him to Nashville for Nick Tarnasky. Belak ended up ending his career with the Preds last season.
Belak worked on the Predators radio broadcasts during the playoffs and was set to be on the Canadian reality show 'Battle of the Blades.'
Last I talked to him, things were going great for him.
This is just a sad, sad day.
Panthers assistant general manager Mike Santos was with the Predators and brokered the deal with Martin for Belak. Unfortunately, I was the one who broke the news to Santos about Belak.
“He was as friendly and nice a person as I have ever met,'' Santos said. “He would give you the shirt off his back. He did so much for kids and our community. He was wonderful. I'm shocked. I'm sad. I don't know what to say. It's a real shame. He's the best.''
Wade Belak, born in Saskatoon, is survived by his wife Jennifer and children Andie and Alex.
-- Belak becomes the third NHL tough guy to die this summer.
Former New York Rangers and Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard (pictured fighting Belak at left; photo courtesy AP) died in May of what has been called an accidental overdose at the age of 29.
Rick Rypien, who spent six seasons with Vancouver, died of what was ruled a suicide earlier this month. Rypien had signed to play for Winnipeg this coming season.
-- When the Panthers traded for Belak in 2008, the Maple Leafs happened to be in town. JM the GM got Belak for a fifth round pick. Later that day, he sent a third round pick to the Leafs for Chad Kilger.
The Panthers sent a driver to the Fort Lauderdale hotel in which the Leafs were staying to pick up Belak. Word was, once on the road, the driver was called and told to turn around. Might as well pick up Kilger as well.
Apparently Belak and the staffer hung around the hotel for a while waiting. Kilger never joined them on the westbound drive to Sunrise and he refused to report to the Panthers.
Last we heard, Kilger was a fire fighter in Canada. Belak had talked about how he wanted to do something similar after retirement.
Panthers assistant general manager Mike Santos said Wednesday that the delay in signing center Shawn Matthias comes down to something simple: "He and his agent can't wrap their heads around us not offering a one-way deal.''
Santos said that the restricted free agent is getting a two-way deal and that's it. Matthias is competing with the likes of Ryan Carter, Tim Kennedy and EvgenyDadonov for a spot. Therefore, "I can't give him a one-way,'' Santos said. "I have to leave spots open for competition.''
That said, Matthias doesn't have much leverage and is going to have to bite this bullet and eventually sign.
-- PS: Dadonov looks to be in great shape and great spirits during informal workouts. Look for a strong camp from him.
-- Santos threw a shot at defensemanDmitryKulikov on Wednesday, saying "I wouldn't say Kulikov is guaranteed a spot. He's eligible for the AHL too.''
Santos said veteran additions Tyson Strachan and Nolan Yonkman are going to compete for roster spots as will rookie Erik Gudbranson and Keaton Ellerby (who just got a one-year, one-way deal).
I don't see Kulikov going anyway. Like Ellerby, it looks like Kulikov has added at least 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason. After a rough sophomore season, I expect a lot of good things out of Kulikov this season -- and it'll start when training camp does.
-- The Panthers unofficial workouts in Coral Springs will continue through training camp.
A bunch of players have been there so far this week, but plenty more are expected by Friday and through next week.
Players such as Jack Skille, Dadonov, Kulikov, Scott Timmins, Mike Weaver, Ed Jovanovski, Jose Theodore, Scott Clemmensen and Matt Bradley have already been out there. Stephen Weiss, David Booth and Jacob Markstrom should be there soon.
Workouts usually begin around 10 a.m. each morning on the Panthers ice sheet.
Former Panthers such as Roberto Luongo, Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson usually start around 8:30 and are done by the time the current team comes on the ice.
Jose Theodore genuinely seems excited to be here in South Florida.
Not only is the veteran goalie getting a fresh chance with the Panthers, but he seems ready to embrace the whole tropical lifestyle.
Take a look at these pictures of his new Florida-themed mask.
On one side of the mask is a feline wearing a bikini.
On the other side is another adult cat (the one that looks a little like Joe Camel) wearing sunglasses. Next to him is a surprised looking kitten.
I was told the three cats on the mask represent the Theodore clan: Jose, wife Stephanie and daughter Romy.
Theodore also has various Florida Panthers logos painted on the mask.
On the back, he has his nickname, a cross and a pretty detailed Florida license tag -- complete with the words 'Sunshine State' on the bottom.
The tag reads 'LX 60' to represent his jersey number with the Panthers.
On a related note, Scott Clemmensen says he likes the masks he wore last season and doesn't plan on getting new ones -- although he said he may break down and do something later in the season.
Like Theodore, Clemmensen's mask has a taste of the tropics as well. Clemmensen, who is a huge Jimmy Buffett fan, has a parrot on the back of both masks to show his Parrot Head support to Margaritaville.
Your thoughts on Theodore's mask?
As always, the comment board is open for business.
Former Panthers goalie concludes his three-part interview (three parts because I kept hitting the stop button and then starting again) from Monday, Aug. 29, at the Panthers training facility in scenic Coral Springs, Fla.
Dale Tallon and Mike Santos did some heavy the past eight months or so, tearing down the Panthers roster just to be able to rebuild it in July.
The Panthers are a much different team than they were to start -- or end -- last season. Florida finished in last place in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history.
But with the rebuild comes a lot of excitement and anticipation for the 2011-12 Florida Panthers. The lower bowl of the arena will have sponsor adorned red seats, visiting fans apparently aren't welcomed anymore and life is peachy.
Believe me, I'm completely looking forward to this upcoming season and am anticipating them being a lot better. But this team still has holes and there are enough question marks that there is no way one could guarantee the Panthers will end their playoff drought this year. Will they be better? Yes. It would be hard for them to be worse. Are they a playoff team? I don't know.
If all goes according to TSN's plan -- which sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't -- the Senators will be the worst team in the east this year with the Panthers finishing 14th. Edmonton is predicted to return to its home at the bottom of the Western Conference standings with Phoenix not far behind.
The Panthers are gearing up for a second rookie camp/tournament in Coral Springs next month.
The team will hold a rookie practice on Saturday, Sept. 10, with their first game against the Lightning on Sept. 11 at 6 p.m.
The Lightning will then play the Preds on Sept. 12 -- the Panthers will practice but not play so not to conflict with the Dolphins-Patriots Monday Night Football opener -- with the Panthers playing Nashville on Sept. 13 and the Lightning on the 14th (or vice versa; I'm a little cloudy on the official schedule. But that should be released soon.)
The Panthers had hoped to have four teams at the camp, but there will be just three. The Panthers and Lightning will play twice; Nashville will play Florida and Tampa Bay once each.
Nothing will happen on Sept. 15, with the main training camp physicals happening on the 16th.
The Panthers will officially open training camp in Coral Springs on Saturday, Sept. 17. Yes, that's the day Miami plays host to Ohio State and the Seminoles play host to Oklahoma up in Tallahassee. So it should be a fun day of hockey and football.
We're almost there.
-- Word is Mike Santos will be returning to South Florida in the coming days so we should get word on the signing of RFA center Shawn Matthias soon.
The Panthers have been doing a lot of work in the community lately. Here is the latest.
From the Panthers:
Sunrise Sports & Entertainment announced today that the Florida Panthers and President & COO Michael Yormark have eclipsed the $50,000 threshold against a goal of $150,000 for the 2011 Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Light The Night Walk in Broward County.
Yormark and the Panthers still need to raise nearly $100,000 to reach their record-breaking goal. Fans can support the Panthers walk team and fight cancer by donating now at:
“We can all make a difference in the fight against cancer,” Yormark said. “Our staff and partners on the Panthers Walk Team are doing their part, but we need everyone’s help to reach our $150,000 goal and help LLS ‘march to a million’ during the 2011 Light The Night Walk.”
Yormark has returned as the Light The Night Broward Walk Chair for the second consecutive year and he and the Panthers walk team have set a record fundraising goal of $150,000.
The 2011 Light The Night Walk in Broward County will take place on Saturday, Nov. 12 at the Huizenga Plaza in downtown Ft. Lauderdale.
In 2010, the Panthers raised a record $130,000 against a goal of $100,000, and Yormark was the top individual South Florida fundraiser at $50,000. On the whole, Light The Night raised more than $915,000, but LLS has set a fundraising goal of $1,000,000 in 2011.
Stanley C. Panther is at today's Marlins-Giants game. I'll be checking out the scene in Coral Springs on Tuesday to see who is out there.
That's my Panthers update. Now to baseball.
With the exception of reliever Randy Choate and a few others walking around in undershirts that read “LoMo Camp for a Cure,'' there was little evidence of Logan Morrison's presence in the Marlins clubhouse early Sunday morning.
The Marlins sent the outspoken left fielder to Triple-A New Orleans following Saturday night's loss to the Giants. Florida also cut veteran Wes Helms on Saturday. Helms' double locker near the entrance to the clubhouse was occupied on Sunday by New Orleans call-ups Ozzie Martinez and Jose Lopez.
“Thx guys 4 all of ur kind words & support,'' Morrison posted on his Twitter account at 2:22 a.m. on Sunday. “A bend in the road isnt the end of the road...unless u fail 2 make the turn"
Morrison wasn't the only one posting about the move on Twitter, although he was unusually reserved.
The thank you note was the only post Morrison put up on Sunday. The move sent online social networks into overdrive late Saturday and into Sunday morning with a large number taking Morrison's side on what appears to be a demotion based on various off field issues. On Saturday, Morrison himself alluded to that as the reason he was headed back to the minors.
Morrison apologized on his Twitter account for missing an photo session with season ticket holders prior to the event on Saturday, an absence that Larry Beinfest, the team's president of baseball operations, refused to comment on.
Morrison's Twitter avatar the past few months is a drawing of himself in a Marlins cap with duct tape over his mouth, the word 'censored' in all capital letters.
The 23-year-old converted first baseman was 0-for-3 on Saturday, but had two hits in each of his previous games and was second on the team with 17 homers and third with 60 RBI despite missing time with an injured foot early in the season. Morrison was also third on the team in slugging and fourth in on-base percentage.
Manager Jack McKeon said Morrison can “polish up on on his” fielding in the minors as well as work on holes in his swing. Morrison is batting .249 and McKeon added the demotion could be “a wake up call for everyone.''
“I'm not going to get into the he-said, he-said thing,'' Beinfest said before Sunday's game. “We have what we felt were solid good reasons that will be good for him in sending him down. I'll leave it at that. He just needs to concentrate on playing baseball and working his way back. We thought this was the right thing to do for Logan. .-.-. [Morrison] will be a good player for a long time. The talent is there. He just needs to work on all aspects of being a major leaguer. He's a much better hitter than he's shown."
McKeon didn't want to talk about the circumstances surrounding Morrison's demotion, saying the Marlins management made the decision. McKeon says he didn't know about the move until being told a change was being made following Saturday's game. McKeon, who himself nicknamed Morrison 'Twitter', said sometimes young players need a breather the minors can provide.
“There's no question he'll be back. He's got good tools,'' McKeon said. “He played hard every time he put on the uniform. I have no complaint with that. .-.-. But sometimes you have to leave the distractions at the door.''
Morrison's willingness to speak out has most definitely caught the attention of team management, with president David Samson saying in May that Morrison needs to be careful in what he posts on the site. Morrison's teammates have obviously noticed the attention he's brought on himself as those players who did speak about the situation on Sunday did so in hushed tones and with choice words.
“The organization thought they needed to do it and they did it. There's nothing else really to say,'' said first baseman Gaby Sanchez. “It happened and that's about it. .-.-. This is a family and what happened is in-house. We all understand it, all know it. You have to choose your words wisely, you can't be blurting things out. These are things the happen in-house. It happened and that's it.''
Shortstop Hanley Ramirez continues to rehabilitate his injured left shoulder at the Marlins' complex in Jupiter with McKeon saying he doesn't know when Ramirez can return to the lineup. Ramirez was injured on Aug. 2 and was put on the 15-day disabled list. He's eligible to come off on Thursday although Beinfest isn't optimistic he'll be ready then.
“I can't tell you. He's over in Jupiter. It's something he's going to have to answer,'' McKeon. “Does the shoulder still bother him? I don't know. I hope the rest does him some good, the therapy is going good, not taking three or four at-bats a night is beneficial. He's hurt that shoulder before. That's his concern. He doesn't want another operation.''
-- The Marlins have until midnight on Monday to sign top draft picks Jose Fernandez (pitcher, first round), Adam Conley (pitcher, second), Conner Barron (shortstop, third) and Joshua Palmer (second base, fourth). “We're working on it,'' Beinfest said.
Fernandez is committed to play baseball at USF in Tampa if he doesn't sign with the Marlins by the deadline. Conley, who is committed to the Gators, was reported to have signed a deal with the Marlins although Beinfest said only that the two sides were close.
Clay Hensley has lost his past two starts, but is 4-2 lifetime against the Rockies in seven starts. Hensley hasn't started against the Rockies since 2007 as a member of the Padres, however, but has made a total of nine appearances against them in the subsequent seasons. UPCOMING
Monday: Marlins RHP Clay Hensley (1-4, 4.50 ERA) at Colorado Rockies RHP Kevin Millwood (0-1, 3.86).Tuesday: Marlins RHP Anibal Sanchez (6-6, 4.00) at Rockies RHP Jhoulys Chacin (9-9, 3.39).
Obviously, Florida's biggest names are third overall picks Erik Gudbranson (2010) and Jonathan Huberdeau (2011).
But when you start going through the players Dale Tallon and Co. have assembled in the past two years, things obviously start looking up. Quinton Howden, Alex Petrovic, Rocco Grimaldi and Nick Bjugstad -- just to name a few -- could be making an impact for the Panthers in the coming years.
And then there are players like Jacob Markstrom and Dmitry Kulikov who were acquired by previous regimes who will -- or are in Kulikov's case -- poised to make an impact on the big team.
So things seem to be on the upswing. It's understandable for some who find it hard to get too excited, however, based on the organization's past.
But the new crew seems to be shedding that skin by the day. The sun is definitely shining in Sunrise.