Belak’s warm, friendly personality left a mark

By Bill Whitehead

Wade Belak and Trent Whitehead, 9, at Panthers luncheon, Oct. 2008. --Photo by Bill Whitehead

Wednesday afternoon’s announcement of Wade Belak’s tragic death has again shocked and saddened the hockey community, but for a moment put aside the former NHL enforcer’s numbers. Forget all the minutes received for fighting with the league’s top heavyweights (1,245 PIMs), the paltry number of goals and assists (8 and 25) and the different teams he played for (five).

What I’ll choose to remember when I hear his name from here on out — the memory-burn I have branded permanently in my mind — is the encounter my then-9-year-old son, Trent, and I had with Wade three years ago at the Panthers’ season kickoff luncheon on Oct. 7, 2008, where Trent was enjoying being in the room full of players and having the chance to take photos with them and get autographs.

Wade had become Trent’s favorite due to the fighting, which isn’t surprising. And the chance to meet the giant from Saskatoon was one that couldn’t be passed up. When Wade slipped out of the room for a few minutes, Trent and I waited to intercept him on his return, though we were clearly outmatched if he wanted to get back inside. The meeting soon became a dream fulfilled.

Belak, wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt, was more than gracious when I asked him for a photo. Trent was in awe of the hulking 6-foot-5, 225-pounder, staring up at him and in disbelief at how big he was — and how friendly he was. Trent was probably expecting to be grabbed by the shirt by Belak, then forced to go toe-to-toe with him, but Wade couldn’t have been any nicer.

“You think you can take Wade?” I asked Trent.

I’ll never forget the look Wade then gave him. He put a hand in his pocket, kind of leaned on one leg away from Trent, tilted that head full of strawberry-blonde hair and gave the youngster a steely glare. He was sizing him up.

“Yeah, you think you can take me?” Wade replied, needing no advice in playing along.

Trent thought he was serious for a moment, but Wade soon nixed the tension by smiling and playfully grabbing Trent’s Florida hat. Wade then spent a minute or two talking to me about the upcoming season, the odd hiring of Barry Melrose by the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Southeast Division’s outlook for the season. Trent, meanwhile, was just thankful he had escaped without any fisticuffs.

If you never had the chance to meet Wade Belak, you missed out. It’s that simple. There are many great things in life we will miss at some point — moments, games, people, vacations, countries — but I’m lucky enough to say I had the opportunity to meet Wade, who would have stopped me if I had referred to him as Mr. Belak or even as Belak if he were watching over my shoulder as I wrote this piece. Wade, he would have said, would work just fine.

Trent met everyone on the team that day. Many of the ones who left the biggest impression are no longer with the team — head coach Pete DeBoer, assistant coach Mike Kitchen (our tablemate), Bryan Allen, Michael Frolik, Tomas Vokoun, Cory Stillman, Kamil Kreps and Richard Zednik among others. But no one left a deeper mark — much like he did on opposing heavyweights’ heads and faces in skirmishes — that day than the friendly, fair-skinned, multi-tattooed enforcer from Saskatchewan.

That’s the Wade Belak I’ll recall. More importantly, the one my son will remember forever.

By Bill Whitehead
NHLHS Florida Panthers Credentialed Correspondent
Twitter: @BillWhiteheadFL