For the NHL, an already dark summer just became unimaginably worse.
From Anaheim to Montreal, the world’s best hockey players struggled Wednesday to comprehend a shocking loss to their sport after a chartered Russian plane carrying the Kontinental Hockey League’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team crashed, killing several NHL veterans in one of the worst air disasters in sports history.
Many players heard about the accident on their way back to work from summer breaks. Most NHL training camps open next weekend, and every club radiates optimism for the season ahead.
But hockey is hurting after an off-season of tragedies and disappointments, including the deaths of three players in a four-month span before the catastrophic crash.
“The hockey world mourns yet again. Please God, we can’t take much more,” tweeted New York forward Brandon Prust, the former roommate of late Rangers tough guy Derek Boogaard.
Even a glorious, seven-game Stanley Cup series ended ugly with riots in Vancouver when the Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins. Looting, vandalism and sporadic violence left 140 people injured and resulted in 100 arrests and millions in property damage.
“This has been a terrible summer for the sport all around,” said Predators centre David Legwand, who played four seasons in Nashville with Karlis Skrastins, a respected NHL veteran killed in the crash. “(Hockey) is a pretty tight-knit family, whether you play in Russia, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden … it is a tough thing for everybody.”
No NHL team was left unscarred by the obliteration of a top club in the KHL, which emerged as Europe’s most lucrative league over the past three years, with teams in former Soviet republics competing with the NHL for players mostly from eastern Europe.
In the intertwined world of elite hockey, it’s impossible to find two teams without players who share a common playing history, nationality or friendship. Lokomotiv’s roster included three-time all-star Pavol Demitra, a Slovakian who played for five NHL clubs; veteran Belarusian defenceman Ruslan Salei, who met his wife in Anaheim and raised his family in Orange County; and Czech forward Josef Vasicek, who won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006.
“I am still in disbelief about today’s tragic news,” said former Avalanche captain Joe Sakic, who played with Skrastins and Salei in Colorado. “Both Karlis and Ruslan were unbelievable individuals and great teammates. They will be sorely missed.”
Hockey had been reeling since May 13, when Boogaard died in his apartment in Minneapolis.
The personable forward was one of the NHL’s top enforcers, bringing charisma to the traditional hockey role of brawler who sticks up for his teammates in crowd-pleasing fights. Boogaard died from an accidental mix of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone, officials said. Meantime, Boston University scientists are studying his brain to determine whether he had a degenerative condition resulting from hits to the head.
Three months later the body of Rick Rypien of the Winnipeg Jets was discovered at his home in Coleman, Alta., after a police official said a call was answered for a “sudden and non-suspicious” death. Although Rypien had suffered from depression for a decade, his brawling style of play raised additional questions about the mental health of enforcers.
Recently retired player Wade Belak hanged himself in Toronto on Aug. 31, a person familiar with the case told The Canadian Press.
The Lokomotiv disaster will linger over the upcoming NHL season, particularly for teams with direct connections to the club. The Detroit Red Wings were hit particularly hard: Lokomotiv coach Brad McCrimmon was Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom’s defensive partner and an assistant to Detroit coach Mike Babcock until May, while Salei played 75 games for Detroit last season.
“It’s just so sad that their lives have suddenly changed forever, and now they’ve got no dad or husband,” Babcock said after driving to the McCrimmon family’s home earlier Wednesday. “It just goes to show that you can’t miss out on doing stuff with your family, because change can come in an instant.”