Wednesday, November 2, 2011
After beginning his career with his hometown Russian Superleague club Dynamo Minsk of Belarus in 1992-93, defenseman Ruslan Salei, born on this date in 1974, played two more seasons with the club, then renamed Tivali Minsk, until taking the opportunity of the recently changed political landscape to come to North America and try to gain the attention of NHL scouts.
He signed with the Las Vegas Thunder of the International Hockey League for the 1995-96 season. While never an offensive force, he did surpass any offensive output he managed in Russia, thanks in part to the longer North American professional season, when he scored 7 goals and 30 points, five times more than the high of 6 he managed the year before in 51 games. In addition, he also showed his rugged side by accumulating 123 penalty minutes. All of this led to his being drafted 9th overall in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
His next season was divided between the Thunder (8 games), the Baltimore Bandits of the American Hockey League (12 games) and making his NHL debut with Anaheim (30 games), which included Salei scoring his first NHL point with an assist.
For 1997-98, Salei spent the vast majority of his season with the Mighty Ducks, which included his scoring 5 goals and 15 points in 66 games. He also skated for the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks of the AHL in six games that same season.
He would spend the entire 1998-99 season with Anaheim, playing in 74 games as well as seeing his first playoff action in three games during the postseason. While certainly not a flashy offensive defenseman, he became a fan favorite for his grit, nastiness and determination.
After four more seasons, the Mighty Ducks would go on their first extended playoff run, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, thanks to their solid defensive corps, consisting of Niclas Havelid, Keith Carney, Sandis Ozolinsh, Salei, Vitali Vishnevsky and Kurt Sauer playing in front of Conn Smythe Winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The Mighty Ducks gave up just 6 goals in 4 games while sweeping Detroit in Round 1, eliminated Dallas in six, miraculously gave up just a single goal to Minnesota as they were swept in four and took the New Jersey Devils to seven games in the finals as Giguere finished the postseason with five shutouts.
The highlight of not only the playoffs, but perhaps his entire career, was Salei winning Game 3 of the finals for the Mighty Ducks with his overtime goal in Game 3 against Martin Brodeur.
After the 2003-04 season with Anaheim, Salei would travel to Russia to play with Ak Bars Kazan of the Russian Superleague during the NHL lockout of 2004-05. He returned to Anaheim for one final season when the NHL resumed play in 2005-06, which included his setting a new NHL high with 19 points.
Salei left the Mighty Ducks after nine seasons to sign a free agent contract with the Florida Panthers. The change in scenery led to a change in Salei's game, as he immediately surpassed his previous offensive totals by a large margin, setting career highs with 6 goals and 26 assists for 32 points, the only time in his NHL career he would exceed 23 points.
After a second season in Florida, he was dealt at the trading deadline (for former teammate Ozolinsh) to the Colorado Avalanche for the final 17 games of the season.He would play another season for Colorado, surpassing 20 points for only the third time, the other being his second season in Florida.
He suffered a serious back injury early in 2009-10, which limited him to just 14 games for the season. The 2010-11 season saw him reunited with his former Mighty Ducks coach Mike Babcock, this time with the Detroit Red Wings. Showing his back issues were behind him, he competed in 75 regular season games as well as 11 playoff contests.
His final NHL totals after 14 seasons of play were 917 games played with 45 goals and 159 assist for 204 points and 1,065 penalty minutes.
Internationally, Salei was a stalwart on the Belarus blue line. The Belarusians first competed internationally at the 1994 World Championships at the Group C level, where they came second to fellow newcomers Slovakia. The won Group C in 1995 with a 4-0 record (while outscoring their opponents 19-8) and were promoted to Group B.
Salei returned to the national team in 1996 and 1997 to help them qualify for the 1998 Olympics in Japan, the first to feature NHL stars, which included a record 21-0 win over Lithuania. Once in Japan, Salei and Belarus won their preliminary round group to advance to the first round, only to be grouped with powerhouses Canada, Sweden and the United States. He also scored his first Olympic goal during
Later that same spring, Belarus, now having been promoted to the top level Group A, advanced to the second round, having finished second to the Czech Republic in Group 1 thanks to wins over Germany and Japan.
He made his next international appearance at the 2000 World Championships, which was highlighted with wins over Ukraine, a shocking 1-0 shutout of Russia and a 5-3 win over Switzerland. Salei and Belarus did not fare as well in 2001, as they finished 14th, usually enough to avoid relegation, but with Japan being protected as the Far Eastern qualifier despite finishing dead last, Belarus were relegated to Division I.
Salei made his second Olympic appearance in 2002 and scored 2 goals in 6 games as Belarus became the Cinderella story of the games. First, they needed to win Group B of the Preliminary Round to advance to the First Round, where they lost three straight games to the United States, Finland and Russia. Still, all eight remaining teams advanced to the Quarterfinals where Belarus shocked the world with their stunning 4-3 defeat of Sweden thanks to Vladimir Kopat's shot from center ice which careened off of Swedish goaltender Tommy Salo's head and into the net with less than 2 and a half minutes remaining.
In 2004, Salei helped Belarus steamroll the opposition in Division I Group A with 3 goals and 7 points for his highest scoring international tournament ever, as they went 5-0 while outscoring their competition 34-9 to return to the Top Level, where they remain to this day.
After two games in an unsuccessful Olympic qualification attempt in 2005, Salei returned to the World Championships in 2008 and again in 2009 where he scored 2 goals and 5 points while serving as team captain.
Salei participated in the third Olympics of his long international career in 2010 in Vancouver. Three months later, Salei made his final international appearance as he took part in his 9th World Championships in Germany, where he scored a goal, the 13th of his career for Belarus. In all, he would play in 69 games and score 31 points in 14 tournaments.
For the 2011-12 season, Salei signed with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League.
As the team were leaving to play their first game of the season, scheduled back in Salei's hometown of Minsk, Belarus, their plane crashed on takeoff, killing Salei and all but one of his 25 teammates, who then died five days later. Additionally, 11 team staff members and 7 of the 8 of the plane's crew also perished. The crash resulted in Lokomotiv bypassing their participation in the KHL season and a moving tribute to Lokomotiv on the ice in Minsk the following day.
This season, tributes to Salei include former Detroit teammate Pavel Datsyuk wearing Salei's #24 during the preseason, the Red Wings honoring Salei on their patch which also includes Brad McCrimmon and Stefan Liv and the Ducks wearing Salei's #24 all season long.
At his funeral, Salei's coffin was draped with his Mighty Ducks jersey.
Today's featured jersey is a 2004 Belarus National Team Ruslan Salei jersey as worn in Salei's participation at the World Championships B Pool tournament when Salei had his highest offensive output in an international tournament with a career high 3 goals and 4 assists for 7 points.
Belarus' National Team first began play in 1994 in the C Pool. It took them two tries to elevate themselves to the B Pool and two more to rise to Group A in 1997. After being relegated in 2001, the earned immediate promotion back to the Top Level in 2002. They were again relegated in 2003 thanks to Japan being exempt from relegation. Once gain they earned an immediate promotion back to the top in 2004 and have remained there ever since, which included an all-time high finish of 6th in 2006, thanks to wins over Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Switzerland on their way to finishing with a 4-3 record.
The original version of today's featured jersey was crested with "Belarus" in English, which was later changed to Cyrillic in 2002.
Bonus Jersey: Today's bonus jersey is a 2002-03 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim Ruslan Salei jersey in which he scored the game winning goal in overtime of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals, as evidenced by the 2003 Finals patch on the upper right chest.
Today's video highlights begin with Salei winning Game 3 of the 2003 finals for Anaheim with his goal in overtime, just one of 5 playoff goals he would ever score with the Mighty Ducks.
Here are a pair of tributes to Salei, which include footage from his various NHL teams as well as playing for Belarus.