TORONTO - Wade Belak's former teammates and opponents paid a heartfelt tribute to the late NHL tough guy on the season-opening episode of CBC's "Battle of the Blades."
"Losing Wade is a huge loss," said Todd Simpson, the former Calgary Flames captain who formed a defensive tandem with Belak with the Western Hockey League's Saskatoon Blades. "I can't make sense of it. I'm still in shock. It hasn't really set in yet."
Entering its third season, "Battle of the Blades" teams up hockey players with figure skaters in a pairs skating competition, with $100,000 donated to charity as the prize.
Belak, who was to appear on the show, was found dead in a downtown Toronto hotel and condo building late last month in what a source told The Canadian Press was an apparent suicide.
"The Wade Belak that I first was introduced to was a guy who intimidated most hockey players in the National Hockey League," said Brad May, himself an accomplished NHL fighter.
The show began with a message dedicating the show to the memory of Belak, as well as to his wife Jennifer and daughters Alex and Andie.
"This one's for you Wade," said host Ron MacLean as the camera moved out to show his No. 3 painted on the ice.
The episode, called 'Game On,' documents some of Belak's last moments as he and the other contestants prepare for the show. His sense of humour is on display as he tries to adjust to figure skates, laughs at May's frequent tumbles and jokes about competitor Cale Hulse's hairstyle.
"Every time I fell I'd hear Wade's little yell, and somewhat of a chuckle at me," May said. "It was a lot easier having a guy like Wade Belak with you, laughing at yourself.
"He didn't take himself too seriously and he made everyone else feel comfortable around him."
The Quebec Nordiques's first draft pick in 1994, Belak is self deprecating in an interview segment near the end of the show.
"Being drafted in the first round, I think I was probably more shocked than anybody," he said. "First round, really? Have these guys seen me play?"
Former NHL player Russ Courtnall, who appeared on "Battle of the Blades" last season, will take Belak's place. Courtnall will pair with American ice dancer Kim Navarro and skate for Belak's chosen charity, the Tourette's Syndrome Neurodevelopmental Clinic at the Toronto Western Hospital. Belak chose the charity for his daughter Andie, who has been diagnosed with Tourette's.