As if the world of hockey needs more tragic news. A plane crash just outside of Yaroslavl, Russia carrying the KHL team Lokomotiv killed 44 people including 8 former NHL players. While the cause of the crash is still under investigation, many people from the hockey world expressed their shock and sadness. Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin wrote on his Twitter account, “I’m in shock!!!!! RIP.” Meanwhile Winnipeg Jets forward Eric Fehr tweeted this: “Terrible news out of Russia. Prayers to all the family and friends involved! #KHL”
When I heard the news I was completely floored. Nothing ever prepares you for a plane crash. There are no words. So firstly I will send out condolences and prayers to all family, friends, acquaintances to those who lost loved ones in the crash.
My focus here will be the 8 former NHL players who died in the crash.
Brad McCrimmon. Age 52. I first heard of McCrimmon way back in 1979 while he was a defenceman for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League. A puck moving defenceman who could play physical McCrimmon led all defencemen with 24 goals and 74 assists in his final year of junior hockey. Drafted in the first round 15th overall by the Boston Bruins, the Dodsland, Saskatchewan native changed his game and was more defensively aware. He enjoyed his best seasons in Philadelphia following a trade in 1982. He was part of a Flyers team that went to 2 Stanley Cup finals and he recorded a career high 13 goals and 56 points in the 1985-86 season. McCrimmon then moved on to Calgary where he won his only Stanley Cup in 1989. Following stints in Detroit, Hartford and Phoenix he retired in 1997 to take up coaching. Following 2 years as head coach of the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL, McCrimmon was an assistant coach with the New York Islanders, Calgary, Atlanta and Detroit before taking the head coaching position at Lokomotiv. This was to be his first year as head coach in the KHL. McCrimmon was an underrated but very effective defenceman. I always liked the way he played and as most players from Western Canada, he showed character and heart all the time.
Pavol Demitra. Age 36. One of the best players to come from Slovakia, Demitra was a skilled player who always gave everything he got. You always knew you would get an honest effort from him. Demitra began his NHL career in the 1993-94 season with the Ottawa Senators. For the next 3 seasons, Demitra bounced around between the Sens and the minor leagues before being dealt to St Louis. For the next 8 seasons, the Gateway City saw the best of Demitra. He was a valuable performer for the Blues playing alongside the likes of Brett Hull and Chris Pronger. Demitra’s best season was in 1998-99 where he chipped in 37 goals and 89 points. He added 5 more in the playoffs including an overtime winner against the Dallas Stars in the second round. Demitra moved on to Los Angeles in 2005 where he scored 25 goals before injuries cut his season short. After a 2 year stint in Minnesota, Demtira signed with the Vancouver Canucks to provide veteran leadership to a young hockey team. While the team couldn’t match the playoff success with its regular season success, Demitra was credited for helping a young team mature. Demitra was a force in international play. He helped Slovakia win its first ever international medal, a bronze in the 1993 World Junior Championships. He also won a bronze in the 2003 World Championships. However I remember Demitra in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver where he was simply brilliant for Slovakia. A 3 point performance led the Slovaks to an upset win over defending Olympic champions Sweden in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals against Canada, Demitra played wonderfully as he was all over the ice skating like a 25-year-old. Although the Slovaks lost, Demitra’s performance earned him a standing ovation from the partisan Vancouver crowd. He wanted it so bad yet he couldn’t have it. I gained much respect for him after that game. Survived by his wife Maja and two children.
Igor Korolev. Age 41. An assistant coach with Lokomotiv, Korolev began his NHL career with the St Louis Blues in 1992. After 2 seasons in St Louis, Korolev was dealt to my beloved Winnipeg Jets and this is where I remember him. He wasn’t the most skilled Russian, but the one thing I will always remember about Korolev was he was just happy to be on the ice playing the game he loved. That smile could be seen from all across Winnipeg. He did score 22 goals for the Jets in their final season of 1995-96. He even got to experience “White Noise.” He moved with the franchise to Phoenix the following season but his game dropped off in which he was sent to the minors. Following a dispute with Coyotes management, Korolev was dealt to Toronto and began to show his form he showed in Winnipeg. He scored 20 goals in the 1999-00 season. However he disappeared in the playoffs which forced the Leafs into moving him to Chicago. After 2 disappointing season in the Windy City, Korolev moved back to Russia where he played in the KHL for 6 more seasons until his retirement in 2010. He took the assistant coaching job with Lokomotiv following his retirement. Korolev loved Canada so much he became a Canadian citizen in 2000. There were rumours suggesting he wanted to be in Winnipeg for the Jets first game back in the NHL. Sadly we will be having a moment of silence in his memory instead. He leaves behind his wife Vera and two daughters.
Ruslan Salei. Age 36. A rugged sometimes dirty defenceman, Salei played the game with a chip on his shoulder. I’ll confess he wasn’t one of my favorite players however he never played for one of my favourite teams either so that is a compliment to Salei. He never took no quarter from anyone. Hated to play against him but loved by his teammates. Salei began his NHL career with Anaheim in the 1996-97 season. He played 8 seasons in Orange County and while he was never a goal scoring machine, Salei was a tough reliable defenceman who could do the dirty work. Salei was a valuable cog in the Ducks’ engine in the 2003 playoffs. The Ducks made it to the Stanley Cup Finals that season and Salei was a big part of that success. He even scored an overtime winner in the Finals against New Jersey. Salei moved on in 2006 signing a free agent contract with the Florida Panthers. He only played a season and a half before being dealt to Colorado at the 2007 trade deadline. He played 2 and a half up and down seasons with the Avalanche before going to Detroit in 2010. His tough, physical play blended nicely with the highly skilled Red Wings. Salei signed with Lokomotiv this past summer. Looking back, he’s someone I would have wanted on my team.
Karel Rachunek Age 32. Rachunek began his NHL career with the Ottawa Senators in the 199-00 season. Considered a project, Rachunek honed his game in the minors before developing into a steady defensive defenceman. His best skill was shot blocking and would not hesitate to sacrifice his body for his team. Rachunek was traded to the New York Rangers at the 2004 trade deadline . Unhappy with the move Rachunek decided to play in his homeland, the Czech Republic for the next 2 seasons. He was convinced to come back to the NHL in 2006 and rejoined the Rangers. He soon moved to New Jersey for one season before going to the KHL following the 2007-08 season. He enjoyed playing in the KHL and was looking to finish his career in Russia.
Karlis Skrastins Age 37. The iron man of defencman in the NHL Skrastins holds the record for blueliners by playing in 495 consecutive games. Beloved by his teammates for willing to do anything the team asks, Skrastins was a valuable member to any team and could have played on my team anytime. He started his career with the Nashville Predators in the 1998-99 season albeit only playing 2 games that season. He soon earned a full-time job, and didn’t miss a game for the next 5 seasons. Skrastins joined the Colorado Avalanche in 2003 and continued his iron man streak. A knee injury forced his streak to come to an end in 2007 and not long after the Avalanched dealt Skrastins to Florida. Skarstins’ final NHL stop was in Dallas where he played 2 seasons and was a popular member of the Stars with both players and fans. He’ll be remembered for his iron man streak and his toughness will never be forgotten.
Josef Vasicek Age 30. A towering forward who was a deceptively fast skater Vasicek began his NHL career with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2000. His first taste of success was in the 2002 playoffs where he scored a critical overtime goal against New Jersey, propelling the Hurricanes to a series win. The Hurricanes went to the Stanley Cup finals that season and Vasicek’s goal was an integral goal in their playoff run. Vasicek was a member of the Hurricanes when the franchise won the Stanley Cup in 2006 although he wasn’t used regularly. He signed with the New York Islanders in 2007 playing one season before leaving the NHL to go to the KHL. He played for Lokomotiv for 3 years and was looking forward to the coming season. Many fans in Carolina are in mourning today.
Alexander Karpovstev. Age 41. An assistant coach with Lokomotiv, Karpovstev began his NHL career in the 1993-94 season with the New York Rangers. Although a rookie, Karpovstev provided a steadying defensive influence that helped the Rangers win their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. After 4 more years with the Rangers, Karpovstev was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs where expectations were high. However his inconsistent play led to a feud with coach Pat Quinn and a subsequent trade to Chicago 2 years later. Karpovstev struggled in Chicago and never really found his game in the Windy City. He was moved to the New York Islanders during the 2003-04 season hoping that a move to the New York City area would improve his fortunes. However his struggles continued and with an impeding lockout, Karpovstev joined the KHL. He did attempt a comeback with the Florida Panthers following the lockout but was released after only 6 games with the club. He went back to Lokomotiv to finish his playing career before becoming an assistant coach. Karpovstev enjoyed some good years with the Rangers and expectations were high following the Stanley Cup win in 1994. He never did live up to those lofty dreams but he did find happiness in Russia and was nicely settled in his homeland.
This is a sad day for all hockey fans. It doesn’t matter whether you loved these player or not, the hockey world is indeed shaken to its core and will never be the same!