Wade Belak was a man of contradictions, but upon his arrival in Toronto for the 2000-01 season, he drew a striking comparison.
His ghostly fair complexion, thinning blond hair and 6' 5", 220-pound frame made him look like he was separated at birth from his former Leaf teammate Mats Sundin. That's where the similarities ended and contradictions began. Where Sundin's hands were sublimely gifted at putting the puck in the net with blinding speed, Belak's were skilled at putting themselves in opponents' faces with devastating force.
A massive, mountain of a man, Belak was covered with fearsome tattoos on a large percentage of his body. One was particularly eye-catching and intimidating: a flaming demon's head on the back of one shoulder.
In contrast, Belak's beastly frame was topped by a boyish face that, without fail, was adorned with a mischievous smile. That smile usually accompanied a smart, funny, or sarcastic remark. In all my dealings with professional athletes, Belak was the funniest I have encountered. The Canadiens' Hal Gill is a master of subtle humour. There was nothing subtle about Belak's brand.
Two of the funniest interactions I had with him made it to air on TSN. The first followed the lockout when the NHL implemented shootouts to decide games. The Leafs were practising shootouts, which included awkward, mostly unsuccessful attempts by their defencemen, including Belak.
After practice I asked him what move he would unveil if, in the unlikely event, he was selected by Pat Quinn to take part in a shootout. He launched into a gleeful, swaggering stream of consciousness of how he would demand musical accompaniment to "kick it up a notch", a little Motley Crue to "Kick Start My Heart". He then said his signature move would be inspired by Dean Youngblood, a lithe spinorama at centre ice to start his path to the net. Edmonton's Linus Omark pulled it off with panache; I can't imagine Belak having done the same. However, Quinn did say at one point that season that Belak was the fastest backward skater on the Leafs. Now, that sounds like another contradiction.
In March 2007 at a Vancouver-Tampa Bay game, a female fan tossed a bra onto the ice after former Canuck Jeff Cowan had scored a pair of goals. Seeking player comments the next day, naturally Belak was the first I approached in the Leafs dressing room. His reaction was, "Nice!", followed by encouraging the NHL to take advantage of future, similar incidents for marketing purposes. All the while, there was that evil Belak smile, not unlike the one worn by the demon tattoo on his shoulder.
Belak made his living sticking up for his teammates, which we all know is a hockey euphemism for pummeling an opponent when necessary.
Those hands were bruised and battered over his 14-year NHL career, yet they would tenderly cradle his two young daughters, of whom he spoke lovingly when we would chat about his family in the dressing room.
Those hands also cradled his two dogs, his Yorkshire Terriers. Tiny, silky rat dogs. The type of dogs which would be better suited as accessories in Paris Hilton's shoulder bag as opposed to being the canine companions of one of the NHL's toughest hombres.
I always thought Belak would have owned a dog that matched his persona. Something like a Labrador Retriever -- big, bullish, loyal, tough when necessary. Instead he filled out his family with a pair of yappy dustmops. I never saw pictures of the Belak dogs so I don't know if they wore bows in their hair, something one often sees on Yorkies.
Being a fellow dog-owner I used to chat with Belak about his Yorkies. He would make his trademark funny, sarcastic remarks about how they were his wife's dogs and that they only shared his home with him. Through his wry smile I could see it was a front because dog owners can't hide their affection. I'm certain Belak would scoop up those little mops in the palm of each giant hand, coo baby talk to them and trade kisses.
If that was Belak's biggest contradiction that I gleaned from my interactions with him, then it was surpassed only by the news of his death. How could a man so full of life, humour, love of his family and appreciation for his career be gone so suddenly, so tragically?
When I saw the Tweet on my phone, I stared at it momentarily, not believing what I was reading. Only when this summer's disheartening roll call entered my mind -- Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien -- was I able to process the sad reality that Wade Belak was now part of that list.
Contradictions. The enforcer and the loving family man. The funny guy, whose life seemed like an open book, died under circumstances shrouded in mystery. The cruelest contradiction -- a vibrant young man who will never get to carry that spark into old age.
John Lu is TSN's Montreal Bureau Reporter. He covered the Maple Leafs from 2000 to 2007, spanning the bulk of Wade Belak's tenure in Toronto.