By Charlie Gillis - Friday, September 9, 2011 - 17 Comments
The night before he was found dead of a suspected suicide, the former NHL enforcer was out on the town and in good spirits
In broadcasting, as in hockey, reliability ranks high on the list of professional virtues. Dead air or squandered studio time are radio sins on par with an empty dressing-room stall before practice. The responsible party can expect retribution and, if he keeps it up, a ticket to the bush leagues.
Some athletes-cum-commentators take a while to grasp that, so the text Wade Belak sent Jeremy Bennefield last Tuesday night came as reassurance to the Nashville radio producer, who had been tasked with grooming the former NHL tough guy to host a weekly show on an all-sports FM station. “I’ll be there on Friday night,” wrote Belak, who was in Toronto at the time. “Staying until Sunday. Any way we can tape a show in that time slot?” The time signature on the message read 11:29 p.m. ET. Bennefield didn’t pick it up until 9:15 a.m. the following day, and he made sure to fire off a quick reply: “Yes, we’ll make it work.”
Three hours later, Belak was found hanging in his hotel room in downtown Toronto, the victim of an apparent suicide (though authorities have not confirmed the cause of death). And Bennefield has been pondering that text exchange ever since.“Somebody actually asked me whether I thought this was a reach-out,” he says from Nashville. “You know: whether Wade was seeking some sort of reassurance that he had something to live for.” But that doesn’t square with the man he had seen at a taping just days earlier, ribbing staff at 102.5 The Game, cracking jokes at his own expense. While recording the inaugural episode of his weekly show and podcast “The Game Changer,” the 35-year-old had enthused about setting down roots in Nashville, where he’d just wound down his playing career. “Based on my conversations with him, based on the texts that I got hours before the fact,” he says, “my impression is this wasn’t a guy looking for a way out.”