June 27, 2009

Q & A - Wade Belak

Here is a great interview done by R. J. Jones. I will have more of his interviews soon.

Describe the type of defenseman you were during your WHL years?

Because of my size, I would consider myself a big physical defenseman. I would use my size to clear the net. It was really difficult for anyone to try to move me. I was able to fight and stand up for my teammates-provide that toughness.

What was it like being Todd Simpsons defense-partner when you were in Saskatoon?

Todd was great. He was a 20 year old over age player during my first year. Being paired with him helped me a lot. He was a big strong stay at home defenseman who could also fight. We worked well together. He was a great leader for our team and for myself. Getting a chance to play with him in Calgary also really helped. He was an all around good guy to learn from.

Describe the 7-game series Saskatoon had with Kamloops in the WHL final during the 93-94 season?

It was a lot of travel. We had a great team the year before. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, as Kamloops also had a great team. We were down 3 games to 1, and we came back home to win game 5, then won game 6 there in overtime. In game 7, we completely shut down, losing 8-1. Kamloops went on to win the Memorial Cup. We had a good enough team to beat them, but we didn’t show up in the last game. They took it too us in the end. It would have been nice to win the Memorial Cup. I was fortunate to win the Calder Cup during my first year with Hershey. Obviously, my next goal is too win the Stanley Cup. So, it would have been great to win a championship at every level.

Many would describe the WHL as a defense-first league, as well as it's known for its rough and tumble style. I often read the QMJHL is known for breeding the best goalies and scorers and their wide-open style, and the OHL is touted as being somewhere in the middle of both. What were the major similarities and differences between the 3 Major Junior leagues during the time when you played?

I think back when I played, the WHL was the toughest of the 3 leagues. I think the NHL scouts looked at WHL players more because of the travel involved. We were playing teams that were 14-15 hours away. In Ontario, they would maybe have a 3 hour or less bus ride. Combined with school, the wear and tear on your body, I think it was a tougher league. The QMJHL are known for their goalies, but I’m not sure why. If I had to chose the better league, I would choose the WHL. Between the travel and school, it really takes a physical and mental toll on your body. If you’re playing Saskatoon or Brandon, you taking 15 hour bus trips, and you’re out West for 2 weeks. Your school work suffers. It’s just not hockey you have to worry about. It was very easy to fall way behind in your school work. Keeping up with your studies was a huge adjustment.

Who do you believe were the toughest guys you fought or played with during your WHL days?

I think Rhett Trombley on our team stands out as a very tough player on our team. Brantt Myhres also. I never fought Brant in the WHL, but he was a very tough guy back then.

Do you have any rivalries in the minors that stick in your memory?

During my first year in Hershey, that’s when Philadelphia changed their affiliation with Hershey, and the Phantoms became a team. Playing them became a huge rivalry. It seemed like everytime we played each other, a brawl was a sure thing! There was always 6 on 6 line brawls, especially in Philadelphia in the old Spectrum. He Phantoms had toughguys like Frank Bialowas. Their whole team had a lot of guys who were willing to fight. Even their goalies. We played those guys 10 times a year, plus the exhibition games. Every game was a fight filled event. We beat them in the 2nd round of the playoffs to advance to the semi-finals. They were the favorite to win. So, beating them was great.

You were a first round draft pick by the Nordiques in 1994. What was going through your mind?

I didn’t expect to get drafted by the Nordiques. It was a definite shocker. I was really excited. At that time, Quebec traded Matt Sundin to the Leafs in exchange for Wendel Clark and some other players. That made a big splash that day in the draft. I knew I was going to a good team. A few years later, Colorado won the Stanley Cup. I was definitely happy.

After you were drafted, you played one more year in Saskatoon?

I wasn’t ready to play in the NHL. You had to be 20 years old to play in the minors. So, I decided to play my 18-19 year old season in Saskatoon. At that time, I was solely a defenseman. Quebec was really deep with blue liners. There was no way I was going to make that line-up. I knew it was going to be a learning process. I played in Hershey and battled through some injuries.

You had 2 exhibition contests versus Matt Johnson and Sandy McCarthy with the 96-97 Avalanche. If you remember, what was it like getting an opportunity fighting 2 well-reputed heavy-weights?

It was a cool experience. When I fought McCarthy, I had stitches in my hands from a previous fight. We were 2 strong tough guys. I was trying to make an impression with Colorado, showing them I can do my job. I was fortunate to get the opportunity.

Did you learn from this experience, and use it as a tool/reference toward your role?

I never really took much from the fights I had. No one really taught me how to fight. It was basically on the job training. I just went at it and fought. I didn’t learn until I went to Toronto and worked with Tie Domi. Up until then, I just went in there and threw, hoping not to get hit. I don’t know if I learned anything from fighting McCarthy and Johnson, other than not to get hit!

When you got to the NHL, which fights or fights gave you some notice among your coaches or teammates?

During my second year of pro, (98-99) Colorado was going to send me down. I did everything in my power to stay up. I fought everybody. The Coaching staff wanted me there, but they knew it was in my best interest to go down. They were happy with the fact I was fighting and I was proving to them I could be a future heavy weight in the league. They knew I was committed to working hard and sticking up for my teammates.

Many young players come into training camp seem to look to take on the toughest veteran to make an impression. Was that true for yourself?

Back then, I was the guy usually going after the heavy weights. Being on the other end during these exhibition games, there was always guys coming up from juniors and the minors trying to show the team and management they can do the job. As a veteran toughguy who has a secure job, I wasn’t one to fight these guys to help them get a job. I want them to earn it, and I don’t think it should be that easy. Why help some kid get a job? Make him earn it in the minors, just like I did. It’s also a long season, so I also looked at it as I was saving wear and tear on myself. Guys trying to prove themselves during training camp still happens often. That hasn’t changed.

That same season, you accumulated 320 PIMs as a Hershey Bear. Was this when you finally realized fighting was going have to be a permanent part of your game?

I knew fighting had to be part of my game back in Junior. I was drafted partly because I could play as a solid stay-at-home defenseman and I was tough. But, fighting completed the whole package. The Coach needed to me to protect the skilled guys. I was really the only toughguy in Hershey that season. We had some other guys, but most of them were injured throughout that season. A lot of the work was on my shoulders. Getting 320 minutes wasn’t surprising. I knew the only way I was going to stay in the league was by playing tough and protecting my teammates.

Who assisted you when you recorded your first NHL goal? Goalies name?

I was with the Avalanche. I was playing on a line with Joe Sakic and Adam Deadmarsh. They both got the assists. I scored on Olaf Kolzig.

Describe what is what like being on the same team with Tie Domi and being with someone to share the workload?

Tie was great with me. He showed me a few things about fighting. I didn’t have the best of balance. A lot of guys don’t think about balance. They just go in and start throwing punches. He showed me things like leg and feet positioning, along with bending my knees. It made a big difference. Before, I fell down after only throwing a few punches. Now, I was able to stand in there. That’s where a lot of your power comes from-keeping your balance while on your skates. Sharing the workload was also great. We played 4 years together. I’m sure it wasn’t fun for the teams that were playing against us back then.

Tie really liked using that spin cycle, didn’t he?

It was very effective for Tie. It was a good method to constantly try to get guys off balance to get the upper hand.

Pound for pound, I believe Tie was the toughest guy around. He went with everyone.

For sure, I believe he was the toughest. He was like a little pitbull.

How difficult was it in transitioning from playing as a defenseman to forward?

I started playing forward when I was in Colorado. At that time, we had 9 defenseman. The team wanted to keep me, Cam Russell, Aaron Miller, and John Klemm were all rotating in on forward. We were so deep on defenseman that the team didn’t want to send anyone down. They rotated us all on forward. And it turned out we can get the job done. When I went to Calgary, I played mostly defense. I was rotated in as a forward for a few games. When I with the Leafs, I played a few years as a defenseman. The team heard how I played up when I was with Colorado. Toronto was also rather deep with defenseman. The only way I was going to stay around was if I was able to be a swingman. They already had their toughguy with Tie Domi. I showed Pat Quinn I could play both positions and I wasn’t a liability on the ice. That’s how I stayed in Toronto for so long.

Describe what it was like playing in England for the Coventry Blaze?

It was a great experience. I’m glad I did it. The was a lot of pressure of playing NHL hockey. Especially playing in Toronto. You had the fans and the media. The hockey in Coventry wasn’t NHL caliber, but I was able to play my natural position as a defenseman. I logged a lot of ice time. I played on the power play and penalty kill. It helped with my confidence. I was averaging 30+ minutes in Coventry where 8 minutes was my NHL average. It was a lot of fun. We played 2 games a week, and practiced 3 times a week. The Coach was unbelievable. He basically let me do whatever I wanted. It was a great way to spend time during the lock out.

Some players seem discontent with the role as their career progresses. Do you feel yourself heading toward that direction?

I knew the only way I was going to stay in the league was by playing physical and being a leader on the team. Certain enforcers just stop fighting and they’re done with it. If you don’t have anything else to bring to the table, then it’s tougher for the team to keep you around. I’m going to keep doing my job as long as it permits me. I know I’m on my way down, and I’ve been fortunate to play as many years as I have. I never would have thought I would be playing 13 years of pro hockey. It’s been amazing.

You sustained a broken nose in a fight with the Bruins' Colton Orr back in 2005. Did that particular injury change your strategy in how you fought?

It was a battle scar. I never knew who he was until we fought after the face off. It happens. You get hit. It doesn’t mean you lost the fight. It’s all cosmetic anyways! It was a lucky punch. Sometimes, you get hit, cut and you bleed.

Of all the players you fought, name a few who you feel is viewed as under-rated in overall toughness, technical standpoints, and hockey skills?

I don’t think there are too many players who are under rated anymore. There’s so much coverage and there really isn’t any category you could place them. Pound for pound, Cam Janssen is one of the tougher guys. He hits, skates well, and he has amazing stamina. Georges Laraque, Brashear, and Derek Boogaard are up there. Eric Godard gets a lot of respect now. When he came into the league with the Islanders, he wasn’t given much respect. The last few seasons, he’s really grown into that role and gets a lot of respect. He was definitely under rated during his early NHL years.

Is there any one aspect of your game that you've been trying to improve or that you feel you need to improve?

I’m always trying to improve. As I get older, part of my game begin to deteriorate. I work on trying to become quicker on the ice. I work on my stick/puck handling. Your hands and wrists get beat up over the years being a fighter. Stick handling really suffers. I have to find ways to get around that. I work on my speed and strength so I’m not so easily knocked off the puck when I’m skating with it.

What really gets under your skin and makes you really want to drop the gloves?

Getting cross-checked repeatedly in the lower back while standing in front of the net. Even now, they’re supposed to call that. Before the lock out, a defenseman was able to stand there, and you were able to cross check a guy-everyone was fair game. Officials make those calls on the smaller skilled guys. When the 4th line guys are out there, the refs sometimes turn their back. That really upsets me. The guys in my position don’t draw a lot of penalties and the ref just expects us to be able to take it. I don’t care how big or small you are, it still hurts the same way. If it’s part of the rules, then call it. That’s probably the most frustrating thing is you definitely don’t get the calls other players would.

Consistent officiating has and always will be an issue. Especially during the playoffs. Do you agree?

Yes. They make the calls based on who is out on the ice. The league will say it’s fair for everyone. All the players know that it’s not. They put different guys in different categories. Look at the playoffs as far as suspensions. You look at what Cammalleri did off the faceoff (forearm/elbow to Martin Havlats head). He didn’t get a suspension. Malkin fighting Zetterberg warranted a suspension. Instigator in the last 5 mins of the game. They’re not going to suspend Malkin. It would have been 2 toughguys, they both would have been gone. That’s just the way it is. It’s unfortunate. Those players are the guys most fans of the NHL want to see. So, they’re not going to penalize those guys for doing that. Last year, Chris Pronger wasn’t going to get suspended until TSN made a big deal out of it for stomping Keslers leg.

Leaving the Leafs was probably one the hardest adjustments you had to make in your career. When you look at it now and where you ended up, was it, overall, beneficial to you as a player?

It was one of the hardest adjustments career-wise. It was something I didn’t want to do. My contract was up at end of the year. The coach wasn’t playing me. Maybe I could have signed for less money. Instead, I asked to trade. I wanted to go somewhere where I could play. It worked out. I was traded to Florida. I played the last 17 games of the season. I was rewarded with a 2- year deal with more money. That’s the way the business is. From day 1, Florida wasn’t a good fit for me. My playing time was slowly dwindling. This goes back to those types of coaches who only use role players specifically. You’re pegged as a certain kind of player, and you’re not getting any more ice time than any other 4th line guy. I was pegged as a tough guy, and I was limited. I wasn’t being used at the right times on the game. We would be getting kicked around the ice and we needed a momentum change. I would never get thrown out there against the teams opposite tough guy to try to get things going. They were unhappy because I wasn’t doing my job and I wasn’t happy because I was out there to do my job. I was traded to Nashville where I was used and played. When I dressed, I played.

Name a few Coaches who were major influences to regards to personal and professional aspects of your career?

Pat Quinn was the best coach I had during my career. He’s a great man, and he’s a very knowledgeable and a fair coach. Many coaches had a strict system in place where role players were specifically used. Pat just let you play and gave everyone a chance. He rewarded players with ice time. Regardless of you were 3rd or 4th line, you were playing a lot if you were playing well. If you were a first line guy who played on the power play in the minors, you were playing on the power play when you were called up to play in Toronto. He gave guys chances to play. Many coaches are scared to play guys who are labeled, like a 4th line grinder. Most of those guys are played with limited ice time. Pat wasn’t like that. A perfect example is Tie Domi. Tie went from playing on the 4th line to virtually all lines. It all depended upon how well he was playing. Tie was used a lot on the first line in the playoffs against Ottawa. Pat did the same thing with me one year. I played on the first line against Philadelphia. Pat was great when it came to that aspect. He was a great person. When you’re a good person, you become a good coach. Missing the playoffs by 1 point got Pat fired. That was very unfortunate. I’m glad to see him get hired in Edmonton.

Name a few defensive partners and forward line-mates who you credit for helping you better your game and who you learned the most from?

When I was a defenseman in Colorado, Patrick Roy was guy I actually learned a lot from. As a defenseman, he instructed us in what he wanted. What he wanted as far as setting up in the defensive zone. He was a great coach. As a young defenseman, I learned a lot from Roy in how to become a better dman. I learned to expect what a goalie wants as far as taking the right guy. He was very vocal about that. He helped us, and myself a lot.

Describe the feeling of getting the better of your opponent after a fight on your home turf?
The home crowd, your teammates and the electricity in the air all directed toward you-that has to be a feeling that you never get tired of experiencing?

Toronto was where I experienced this the most. Of all the teams I played for, Toronto was the best in this regard. I had a good connection with the fans, and they appreciated what I did. Once Tie retired, everyone really jumped on board. It’s a great feeling to hear 19,000 people chant your name after a fight. It’s a feeling I never had and won’t get anywhere else.

Can you give name some scraps during your career in which you wish you had a rematch or one more crack at?

Not really. I got back at everyone that I ever wanted another shot at. It’s tough to fight just for the sake of fighting. It’s a lot easier to fight when you’re angry and have motivation.

What’s your opinion regarding new proposed rule regarding “staged fights?”

It’s out of my hands. I’m sure the committee will take a strong look at it. I see an easy way around it anyways. Drop the puck, skate around for 10 seconds, then fight.

What are your thoughts regarding the instigator rule?

They should get rid of it. It’s not needed. Our game isn’t the way it used to be, like back in the 70’s with the bench clearing brawls. You get rid of the instigator, you also get rid of all the cheap shots. The rule protects guys like Hollweg and Avery, and all the other rats that stick you, run you, play dirty and give cheap shots. They’re not going to fight guys like myself or Derek Boogaard. All they will do is turtle. Not having the rule will hold guys like that more accountable. If you’re going to play that way, then I think there should be something you have to answer too.

Which player or players do you consider to be the "best pest"? Who did you hate playing against the most?

I don’t have a lot of respect for guys who sit and chirp, and don’t act upon it. I think a good agitator is someone who really gets under your skin and is a good teammate. But, they’re a good person off the ice. I wouldn’t consider Sean Avery a agitator. He’s a sad excuse for someone trying to be something else. Darcy Tucker was great at it, and we respected him.

Favorite kind of music?

I love Metal. I grew up listening to Motley Crue and Metallica. As long as it’s not country.

Favorite Movie or movies?

Braveheart and The ShawShank Redemption.

Wade Belak TKO's Donald Brashear. Fletcher never should have traded him away.

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