Veteran defenseman Ruslan Salei played in more than 900 NHL games and once scored an overtime goal in the Stanley Cup Final, but when he didn't find any suitors among the 30 clubs for the 2011-12 season, he elected to sign with the KHL and join his former assistant coach in Detroit, Brad McCrimmon, who had taken the head coaching job with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
Salei died Wednesday at the age of 36 when the team plane carrying Lokomotiv crashed shortly after takeoff in Central Russia, claiming the lives of at least 43 on board, including McCrimmon, who enjoyed a lengthy NHL career as a defensemen, and several players with ties to the League. The team was flying to its season opener in Minsk, Belarus, which also happened to be Salei's birthplace.
He leaves behind a wife, Bethann, and three children. Salei's third child, a daughter Ava, was born in March, joining daughter Alexis and son Aleksandro.
"They were both special in their own way," Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said of Salei and McCrimmon. "Rusty was a team player and played well for us."
Salei began his professional career playing in Belarus for Minsk Dynamo and Minsk Tivali and also played 35 games for Kazan Ak-Bars during the 2004-05 NHL work stoppage.
Taken in the first round by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks with the ninth pick of the 1996 Entry Draft, the 6-foot-1, 212-pound Salei proceeded to carve out a 14-season NHL career as a physical, stay-at-home defenseman who could contribute the odd goal here and there. The organization released a statement expressing its condolences.
"The Anaheim Ducks organization is shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of Ruslan Salei. 'Rusty' was a fan favorite and dedicated member of the Orange County community since being drafted by Anaheim in 1996. Our thoughts and prayers go to his wife and three children, along with all of the other members of the hockey community affected by this horrible tragedy."
Salei became a full-time contributor on the Anaheim blue line during the 1997-98 season and had one of his biggest moments during the 2003 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The seventh-seeded Mighty Ducks went on a Cinderella run all the way to the Final, dispatching recent Cup champs Detroit and Dallas along the way. After being shut out in the first two games of the Final by New Jersey, with a must-win Game 3 back in Anaheim, it was Salei who scored off a faceoff 6:59 into overtime to put the Ducks back in a series they would extend to seven games before falling.
Salei played two more seasons in Anaheim after that Cup run before signing a four-year contract with the Florida Panthers, where he enjoyed his best offensive season in 2006-07, posting career highs in goals (6), assists (26), points (32) and shots (148).
The Panthers organizaiton sent condolences in a statement: "The entire Florida Panthers organization is deeply shocked and saddened after learning about today’s plane crash involving the Kontinental Hockey League's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club, which included the loss of former Florida PanthersAlexander Karpovtsev, Ruslan Salei and Karlis Skrastins. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those families who have lost loved ones in this tragic and unfortunate accident."
Prior to the 2008 trade deadline, Salei was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for a third-round draft pick and fellow blueliner Karlis Skrastins, who also died in Wednesday's plane crash. Salei helped the Avalanche reach the second round of the playoffs and spent two more seasons there before playing last season with the Red Wings. Salei registered 10 points in 75 regular-season games and played in all 11 postseason contests for the Wings, scoring the opening goal in Game 3 of their first-round sweep of the Coyotes.
"The entire Colorado Avalanche organization is deeply saddened by this morning’s horrific news regarding the Kontinental Hockey League’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl," said Avalanche President Pierre Lacroix. "Moreover, we are all in a state of shock regarding the deaths of former Avalanche defensemen Karlis Skrastins and Ruslan Salei. Our thoughts and prayers go out their families as well as those involved in this devastating incident."
"I am still in disbelief about today's tragic news,” said Avs Executive Advisor/Alternate Governor Joe Sakic, a teammate of both Salei and Skrastins. "Both Karlis and Ruslan were unbelievable individuals and great teammates. They will be sorely missed. My condolences go out to their families and all those affected in this tragedy."
Salei finished his NHL career with 45 goals, 204 points and 1,065 penalty minutes in 917 regular-season games. He added 7 goals, 16 points and 52 penalty minutes in 62 playoff games, along with a plus-15 rating.
Salei also played internationally for Belarus, serving as captain for the 2010 Winter Olympic team in Vancouver. His third-period power-play goal proved decisive in a win over Germany.
It was a different game in the past, that's for sure. It's not exactly what I was expecting but I think the experience paid off for a lot of our guys that realized what it takes in a Game 7. Realistically the effort we put forward, we might not even had to put 60 [minutes], but we just couldn't get a couple bounces to go our way and we just kept pushing.
— Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby on his team's play in a Game 7 win vs. the Islanders