- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Washington Capitals right wing Joel Ward got a message Wednesday afternoon from a friend asking if he had heard about Wade Belak. Ward, who played with Belak in Nashville, immediately thought of the television show the ex-NHL enforcer was taking part in – “Battle of the Blades.”

But the news was far worse: Belak was found dead in a Toronto condo, where he was for the taping of the show.

“Unbelievable. He was one of the best guys, great team guy – always there for the boys,” Ward said. “Whether he was playing or not he was always a positive guy.”

Belak retired in March after playing parts of 14 NHL seasons as an enforcer. He was widely praised as one of the best personalities in the game; Ward called him “all bright and bubbly” and “always the funniest guy” on the team.

“I was just fortunate to get a chance to play with him and hang out with him for two years in Nashville,” Ward said. “[When you hear this news] you’re puzzled and just sad.”

According to multiple reports out of Toronto, Belak hanged himself. Ward on Wednesday evening remembered his former teammate as a man always happy with his wife and two young daughters. The Caps’ recently signed right wing couldn’t come to grips with that possibility.

“I have a hard time believing that something like that is suicide,” he said. “I don’t really believe it.”

The NHLPA released the following statement on Belak’s death: “His affable personality made him popular with teammates, fans and media, and he was a hard-working, respected member of the Association. He will undoubtedly be greatly missed throughout the entire hockey community. Our deepest condolences go out to Wade’s family and friends during this very difficult time.”

It’s a difficult time for the entire NHL family – particularly given how this is the third death of a young player or ex-player this summer. Derek Boogaard was found dead of an accidental drug overdose May 13, and Rick Rypien - cousin of former Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien - was found dead of an apparent suicide  Aug. 15.

Ward wasn’t sure what to make of this summer of tragedy around the league.

“Three players – that’s like holy …” Ward said, trailing off. “I don’t know what to say about that. To see three guys like that go down in one summer, that’s huge.”

Ward clearly took the news hard, just as most did who had any interaction with Belak.

“It was a tough one,” he said.

Added Gary Bettman in a statement: “The NHL family mourns the passing of Wade Belak,who competed to the utmost every minute of his NHL career.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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