It is always a shock to the system when tragedy strikes, especially when it is a current NHL player who has died, but with the passing of Wade Belak in Toronto on Wednesday, shocking doesn't begin to describe it.
For starters, Belak is the third NHL player who played NHL games last season who has died in the last four months. New York Ranger Derek Boogaard died in mid-May and former Vancouver Canuck Rick Rypien in mid-August. The passing of Boogaard and Rypien were no less tragic than that of Belak, let us be clear on that. All three performed the NHL's most dangerous and perhaps difficult job, that of the hockey enforcer.
But of the three, Belak is the one who, publicly anyway, came across as the most happy and carefree and at peace with himself.
At the time of Boogaard's death, it was well known by his friends, family and the hockey community that Derek was suffering terribly on every level from post-concussion syndrome. His cause of death was ruled as accidental, a lethal combination of alcohol and prescription pain medication.
Rypien's official cause of death was never formally acknowledged, but it was well known he had been dealing with depression for years and had taken a medical leave of absence from the NHL dating back to last November.
In the case of Belak, his many friends and former teammates, basically anyone who knew him, would be quick to say Belak came across as happy and well-adjusted, a player who had decided to retire this summer to pursue a career in broadcasting.
Belak always came across as friendly and outgoing, the life of any party, quick with a quip, who regularly turned up on a Toronto radio station to poke fun at everyone, including himself. If he were conflicted about the job he did or the life he led, it never showed to so many who called him a friend.
Like Boogaard, Rypien, and for that matter journeyman pro and ex-San Jose Shark Tom Cavanagh, whose mental health issues led to his suicide in mid-January, the death of Belak will impact the NHL and hockey community on every level.
There will no doubt be some hard questions asked of the NHL and NHL Players' Association in the wake of the death of three NHL tough guys in less than four months. Many will be looking for a link between the jobs Boogaard, Rypien and Belak did and what role it may have played in their deaths. Ultimately, those are questions that do need to be asked, though in a measured manner without leaping to unfounded conclusions based on wild speculation.
NHL and NHLPA executives did talk today in the wake of Belak's death. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league is "concerned" and "troubled" by the third NHL death in the last four months. The league is expected to take a hard look at what more can be done to make sure players who need help know it's available to them and how to get it.
But like it or not, there will be many who will also want it to be a look at fighting in hockey and whether it in any way links the three deaths.
For today, though, the tragedy is too raw as the NHL community finds itself grieving yet again, this time on the most unimaginably shocking passing of Wade Belak.