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WADE BELAK: 1976-2011

Belak 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.

Belak2 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.

Wadeboog 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.

Again, just a sad day.