Changing coaches' attitudes a key in wake of Belak tragedy
Former Maple Leaf sports psychologist Paul Dennis had some important things to say about youth hockey in the wake of the Wade Belak tragedy.
Dennis, who retired recently after 20 years with the Leafs and now teaches at the University of Toronto and York University, has seen the game from all levels during his career. He was the head coach of the Toronto Marlboros and has also been a video analyst for the Leafs and the 1991 Canada Cup team.
Dennis hopes that the Belak suicide and recent deaths of Rick Rypien and Derek Boogard will help to start a culture change in hockey and he believes the key potential game changers are the coaches. He feels that coaches must create an environment where young players aren't afraid to express their vulnerabilities. He said the opposite happens right now.
"What do we have in place that makes sure the kids are playing for all the right reasons and they know they're playing for all the right reasons?" said Dennis. "In addition to teaching them confidence and camaraderie, let's teach them when things don't go your way, that you have self doubt, self criticism, you need to tell me, I'm your coach, I'm here to help you cope in that particular situation.
"That's what we do with our kids at home. We encourage that. But in sport, we don't. In sport, we figure 'You know what they'll figure it out for themselves, that's what resilience is all about, that's what toughness is all about.' But they don't know, they don't know that.
"We teach them to be confident, to be mentally tough. Not everyone is going to be confident and mentally tough. Those that aren't, we don't want to lose them through attrition, we want to help them cope with their anxiety level, to teach them hockey is part of their life, not the rest of their life and to enjoy the experience.
"I honestly think that coaching attitudes and behaviours of coaches is what's going to change this culture."
Belak made impression at Okanagan: A big part of Belak's development as a player was at the Okanagan Hockey School in Kelowna, B.C., where he went as a kid and later worked as an instructor. He wound up buying a cottage for his family in the area.
"One of the things you think about Wade is how big of a guy he was," said Andy Oakes, president of the Okanagan Hockey School. "We would have these 5- and 6- and 7-year-old groups just swarming him and him standing in the middle of these little guys getting the autographs on their sticks and on their jersey and on their hats.
"He's about 5 feet taller than most of these guys and he's there with a big smile on his face enjoying it. For me, that will probably best depict what I remember of Wade as a pro instructor."
Like many in hockey, Oakes worries about the three recent deaths among hockey enforcers, particularly because he sees the violence in the NHL having a big impact on the kids at the school.
"Our organization works with youth from the age of 4-years-olds up to 20-years-olds and we work with youth from all over the world and our youth in our game look at the NHL as their heroes and looks at what they do as what we should be doing," he said.
"I think Hockey Canada is working extremely hard now to reduce the violence in minor hockey and junior hockey and it is something that has to continue to be enforced throughout.
"Unfortunately -- or fortunately for the NHL -- how they're handling some of these situations or even fighting in general, it does have a trickle down effect to 7-, 8-, 9, 10-, 11-year-old players. All the rules in the world at minor levels will not change the fact these kids look up to the NHL for guidance or follow the NHL because that's their dream."
Below are Vance's memories of her good friend, a combination of an email she sent to the Star's Jayme Poisson and a follow-up phone interview.
Wade was my friend, a good one, a really good one. Together we made a few of the Leafs losing seasons fun. "Wade a Minute" made us laugh -- we laughed at him, at ourselves, at life. He was always there for the media with his childlike grin, shock of red hair, a quick zinger if you weren't following along.
Wade kept things interesting. Was liked, if not loved, by everyone (that's not something you can say about many people in any walk of life, especially ego-filled pro sports)
Wade was a role model always ready to help a kid going through a tough time with a chat, a stick, a photo.
He connected with people. He's the type of guy who swings you around when he hugs ya.
Knowing his family, it was obvious that Wade was great husband and father, a softie who loved his three beauties. He loved his dogs ... he loved his time hunting back in native Saskatchewan and he told me personally how much he was enjoying his new life after hockey.
This is why we all are in such a state of shock. Where were the signs? The hockey family, fans and media are all reeling because Wade truly seemed to have everything anyone could want.
I last saw him during the Canucks/Predators Stanley Cup Playoffs series. We hung out in the press box pre-game and chatted about his radio gig. He told me "it's awesome, I get to be opinionated ...and you know I am that!" He said the family was great and had just found their dream home in Nashville -- while he missed Toronto, the people, Canadian culture, the dealbreaker was "I can't do the winters, too cold."
You know on your Blackberry, there's always one person you pocket dial by mistake? It always came up Wade. Always. Always. Once time it was post game and midnight my time and I'm sure he was in Nashville. I saw that it had dialed him and I ended up texting him the next day: 'Sorry about the 1 a.m. pocket dial.' And he sent a message back: 'Sure, it was a pocket dial. You just love me!'
He was amazing with his girls. Jen Belak is the sweetest flower you ever met. She is certainly not typical of the hockey wife. They truly loved each other in a way that many of us would look at and go 'That's how it's supposed to be. Look at them.' I'm friends with Jen on Facebook and you would see their lives unfolding on Facebook: Going to the Country Music Awards a month ago, they're hanging out with Justin Bieber, they're walking the red carpet and it's smiles, smiles, smiles. There was just no sign. I can't imagine what she's going through.
I was lucky to know this man whose heart was even bigger than he was tall.
My heart breaks for his beauties and his family back in Saskatoon.