Thursday, September 8, 2011
The crash on takeoff of the jet carrying the Russian club Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to what was supposed to be their season opening game killed 43 of the 45 people on board, taking the lives of all but one of the players and all of the other team personnel on the flight. The only other survivor of the crash was a member of the plane's crew.
"At first we didn't want to believe it. But right now there is no hope. The team is gone," a Lokomotiv team official told the Russian news outlet Sovietsky Sport.
The catastrophe claimed the lives of players and coaches from Belarus, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden and Ukraine, shaking the hockey community worldwide.
Among those familiar to fans of the NHL were assistant coach and 12 year NHL veteran and multiple Soviet and Russian league champion Russian Igor Korolev, eight year NHL veteran and World Championship gold medal winner Czech Karel Rachunek, Stanley Cup and World Championship gold medal winner Czech Josef Vasicek, 11 year NHL veteran, owner of the NHL's longest playing streak for a defenseman and Latvian National Team mainstay Karlis Skrastins, 12 year NHL veteran, World Championship gold medal winner and one of the first four Russians to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, assistant coach Alexander Karpovtsev, 14 year NHL veteran, with 917 games played, and Belarus National Team leader Ruslan Salei, 18 year NHL veteran of 1,222 games and Stanley Cup winner and team head coach Canadian Brad McCrimmon.
Russian Alexander Vasyunov had played two seasons with the Lowell Devils of the AHL and 18 games with the New Jersey Devils last season and German Robert Dietrich spent two seasons in North America in the Nashville Predators system with the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals,
Czech Jan Marek led the KHL in goal scoring in 2008-09 and was a World Championship gold medal winner in 2010. Sweden was hit hard by the loss of goaltender Stefan Liv, a three time Swedish Elitserien champion with HV71, and World Championship gold medal and Olympic gold medal champion, both coming in Sweden's historic double of 2006. The Polish born Liv also played in North America with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL in 2006-07.
One of the highest profile names to perish in the crash was Slovak star Pavol Demitra. Demitra began his professional career with two seasons in the Czechoslovak league before moving to North America following his being drafted 227th overall by the Ottawa Senators. He would split three seasons between the NHL's senators and their top minor league affiliate, the Prince Edward Island Senators from 1993-94 to 1995-96.
Demitra played for the Las Vegas Thunder and Grand Rapids Griffins of the IHL as well as eight games with the St. Louis Blues following a trade. he found his greatest success with St. Louis, with three seasons of 35 goals or more, including a high of 37 in 1998-99, the year of his first NHL All-Star Game appearance. Two more All-Star appearances would follow in 2000 and 2002 before Demitra would set a career high in points with 93 in 2002-03, placing 6th overall in the league scoring race. In all, Demitra would lead St. Louis in scoring four times, in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003.
He would also be recognized with with the Lady Byng Trophy in 2000 after recording 28 goals and 75 points with just eight penalty minutes.
He returned to Slovakia during the NHL lockout of 2004-05 to once again play for Dukla Trencin. Once the NHL resumed play, the free agent Demitra signed to play for the Los Angeles Kings for one season prior to being traded to the Minnesota Wild to be teamed with fellow Slovak and close friend Marian Gaborik. for the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons.
Demitra tied for the team lead in scoring during his first season in Minnesota despite Gaborik missing nearly half the season due to injury. While with the Wild, Demitra served as team captain during October of 2007.
His final two NHL seasons were spent with the Vancouver Canucks, although the second was limited to 28 games following a lengthy recovery from off-season shoulder surgery.
His NHL career concluded with 847 games played, 304 goals and 464 points for 768 points. Additionally, in 94 career playoff games, Demitra scored 23 goals and 59 points.
For the 2010-11 season, Demitra signed with Lokomotiv of the KHL in Russia, where hisrenowned playmaking abilities made the veteran the club's leading scorer and placed him in a tied for third in league scoring.
Internationally, Demitra played in the 1992 European Junior Championships and the 1993 World Junior Championships, winning a bronze medal, for Czechoslovakia. Following the division of Czechoslovakia, Demitra skated for Slovakia in both the 1996 World Championships and 1996 World Cup, the 2002 Olympics and 2003 World Championships where he earned a bronze medal.
He then went on to participate in both the 2004 World Championships and 2004 World Cup, the 2005 World Championships, 2006 Winter Olympics and 2007 World Championships.
Demitra then led all players at the 2010 Olympics in scoring with ten points in seven games on his way to being named a tournament all-star. He also scored a sublime shootout goal to give Slovakia a win over Russia in the preliminary round.
His final international appearance was as the 2011 World Championships, where he had the honor of captaining the Slovak team on home ice.
Here, Demitra and future Lokomotiv teammate Rachunek embrace following their preliminary round game at the 2011 World Championships.
Demitra leaves behind his wife Maria and his two children, Lucas and Zara.
Today's featured jersey is a 2006-07 Minnesota Wild Pavol Demitra jersey as worn on January 6, 2007 with the Garth Brooks Teammates for Kids Foundation patch. Each player on every team would wear the Teammates for Kids patch on their jerseys for a game that January, after which the jerseys were then auctioned off for charity to raise money for the foundation.
To date, the foundation has distributed over $75 million through it's various programs in conjunction with professional athletes.
Today's first video is an enlightening look into the thoughtful Demitra's journey from a youngster in Czechoslovakia, where the ultimate goal was the World Championships to the Olympics, to seeing the world change and participating in the NHL becoming a new possibility and the adjustments needed after coming to North America.
Demitra had the perfect timing to score a hat trick on Hat Night in Los Angeles. The results were swift and predictable!
Here is Demitra's game winning goal in the shootout against Russia in the 2010 Olympics, where he displayed his puck control by deftly lofting the puck over the Russian goaltender counter to the direction of his body following his patented "swing wide" approach to the net.
In Minsk, Lokomotiv's scheduled opponents for their first game, Dynamo Minsk, held a hockey funeral for those killed in the crash, a moving and emotional ceremony.
To see the full 35 minute version of the service, click here.
On a personal note, we had the pleasure of seeing Demitra play in person for the two seasons he was with the Wild and the opportunity to meet him in person following a few practices. Our favorite memory of him began when we were at a pre-game warmup one night. A kid came down the steps of the arena toward the glass wearing a goaltenders catching glove while the players were warming up. As soon as the kind stopped and held up his glove, Demitra looked up after finishing a stick handling warmup drill and lofted the puck over the glass to the kid, who caught the puck in the glove and ran off.
I commented, "It was like he knew it was coming," to which the regulars replied, "He did, Pavol always looks for a kid to give a puck to."
Armed with that knowledge, the next time we attended a game with our youngster, we did all we could to put ourselves in position to get Demitra's attention. Wearing our vibrant yellow Dukla Trencin jersey, Demitra's previous Slovak club of which he was then a part-owner, to stand out against the dark green seats of the Xcel Energy Center, and with our youngster not only dressed in a Wild jersey, but holding a Dukla Trencin sign with Demitra and Gaborik's numbers 38 and 10 to further stand out, we positioned ourselves alone six rows up to make any attempt to loft a puck to us easier than if we were right behind the glass in the first couple of rows, not to mention away from the larger number of fans at the glass.
As Demitra finished his stickhandling drill, he looked up to scan the crowd for a kid, we gave him a quick "over here!" wave, as if we needed to wearing the bright yellow of Dukla, and he softly floated the puck over the glass right to us, which landed more gently in our hands than one could ever imagine.
We repeated this later in the season, and those two seemingly ordinary warmup pucks now hold an even more special place in our modest collection of memorabilia now that Demitra and his many Lokomotiv teammates have now left us.