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Liv lived an extraordinary life

Thursday, 09.08.2011 / 10:58 AM / Across the Pond

By Bill Meltzer - NHL.com Correspondent

In Swedish, the word liv means life. Although Lokomotiv Yaroslavl goaltender Stefan Liv died Wednesday in the catastrophic plane crash in Yaroslavl, Russia, that has left the entire hockey world stunned and devastated, he accomplished -- and enjoyed -- more in his 30 years of life than most people experience in much longer lifetimes.

Known for his fun-loving and free-spirit personality, Liv was an immensely popular player among teammates and supporters of the clubs on which he played. Most notably, the former Swedish national team netminder was considered an iconic player for Swedish Elite League team HV71 Jonkoping, with whom he spent 10 of his first 11 professional campaigns before signing to play in the KHL after the 2009-10 season.

Valtonen not among victims

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl goaltending coach Jorma Valtonen was not among the people who perished in the tragic plane crash in Yaroslavl, Russia, on Wednesday that claimed the lives of most of the team's players and coaches. Rather than join the team for the trip to its regular-season opener in Minsk, Belarus, he remained behind in Yaroslavl following a team meal earlier in the day.

Valtonen, who is in his first season with Lokomotiv, erroneously had been listed as a passenger in some early media reports immediately following the crash.

Valtonen, 64, is a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame and the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame. Best known to North American hockey fans as the goaltender for Team Finland in the final game of Team USA's "Miracle on Ice" run to the gold medal at the 1980 Olympics, Valtonen enjoyed a long and distinguished international hockey career. In Finland's SM-Liiga, he was a standout goaltender, primarily with TPS Turku. He also played for Assat Pori and Jokerit Helsinki, spent three seasons playing in Italy and one season in Germany.

Following his retirement after the 1986-87 season, Valtonen turned his attention to coaching. Shortly before the crash, he expressed his excitement at the opportunity to work this season with new Lokomotiv goaltender Stefan Liv as well as veteran backup Aleksandr Viyukhin and the young goaltending prospects in the Lokomotiv farm system.

Right now, however, hockey is the furthest thing from Valtonen's mind. He is deeply shaken by the tragedy that has befallen the rest of his Lokomotiv comrades.

"(Wednesday) morning I was at practice with the team, I had lunch with the team, and then I went back home," he told the Toronto Star. "I wished them good games, and bring us back some points, and then this happened. You can never accept something like this."

-- Bill Meltzer
"Stefan was a very good friend," said Washington Capitals star Nicklas Backstrom, who played against Liv as a member of Brynas and was teammates with him on the national team. "It causes no pain to say that Stefan was a friend. He was always happy, positive and always had a smile on his face. The news (of his death) was horrible and very tough to take.”

Born Patryk Sliz in Gdynia, Poland, on Dec. 21, 1980, the future pro netminder was left at an orphanage in Gdansk by his teenaged birth mother, who realized she would be unable to properly care for the baby. At the age of 2, he was adopted by Swedish couple, Jens and Anita Liv, who traveled to Poland from their home in Norrahammar, Sweden (near Jonkoping) to receive the child. He took on the name Stefan David Patryk Liv.

Always close with his adopted family as he grew to adulthood, Stefan became inseparable from his younger brother, Christian. Together, they and their mother were forced to muddle through after Jens passed away after a battle with cancer when Stefan was 12.

"It was a very tough time, both for my brother and me," Liv recalled in an interview with Swedish newspaper Expressen in 2006. "What happened was very sad, and I started to have problems in school, where I became angry and aggressive."

Fortunately, Liv had his mother and brother to help him pull through. He also had his hockey to channel his energies in a positive direction. The rink became his sanctuary, and his devotion to his goaltending craft became his one true passion. Years later, Liv had Anita's likeness painted on one of his masks to pay tribute to her. When Team Sweden won the gold medal at the 2006 IIHF World Championship, Christian was the first person he handed the trophy to in the locker room.

"We're always together," Stefan said of his brother at the time. "He's my biggest admirer and my biggest critic. We had some tough years when our dad passed away. Since then we've been inseparable, and I want to share this with him."

On the ice, Stefan's athleticism and flexibility became his trademarks. He rose through the ranks of the HC Dalen and HV71 Jonkoping junior programs, dressing for the first time as a backup goalie for HV71's senior team at age 18. Liv became HV71's starting goalie by the end of the 1999-2000 season. Shortly thereafter, he was chosen by the Detroit Red Wings in the fourth round (No. 102) of the 2000 Entry Draft.

Liv's career with HV71 was nothing short of brilliant. Although his playing style was unorthodox, his flexibility and acrobatic athleticism usually enabled him to make the saves. He was a Rookie of the Year nominee in his first full season and, later, won the Leif "Honken" Holmqvist Trophy as Elitserien's best goaltender in 2001-02, as well as the Gold Puck Award as Elitserien's MVP in 2007-08. Liv backstopped his team to three Elitserien championships (2003-04, 2007-08, and 2009-10), and helped take the club to the finals in 2008-09. During that span, he also became a regular member of the men's national team.

Away from the ice, Liv gained the reputation of being an extrovert with a perpetual grin and a laid-back personality. He was very well-liked by fellow players, coaches, fans and reporters alike. Through it all, he never lost sight of his humble origins or lost his appreciation for the sport that brought him fame throughout Sweden.

"Stefan was an unbelievably modest person who always spread happiness around him," former national team teammate Tony Martensson recalled to Expressen.

Added former HV71 coach Kent Johansson: "He was an incredibly fine person, fantastic. He was extremely gentle (off the ice). It was hard not to like him. He was always open-hearted, happy and positive. He was respected and very professional."

ACROSS THE POND

Toskala looks to bounce back

Bill Meltzer - NHL.com Correspondent
The 34-year-old netminder, who signed a one-year contract with Ilves Tampere of Finland’s SM-Liiga, is hoping a return to his hometown team will help reverse his recent fortunes. READ MORE ›
At the 2006 Olympics, Liv served as the third goaltender, behind starter Henrik Lundqvist and backup Mikael Tellqvist. Despite being relegated to the press box, Liv remained upbeat and developed close friendships with both of his fellow goalies on the team. Along with the rest of the squad, Liv rejoiced in the gold medal Sweden took home from Turin. Later that year, he helped backstop Sweden to the gold medal at the World Championships.

Liv took a shot at playing North American hockey when he signed a one-year contract with the Red Wings in 2006. Assigned to the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins, Liv had mixed success in making the transition to the smaller-rink game. It's an adjustment that typically takes goaltenders a little longer than position players, and Liv went 15-15-2 with a 3.01 goals-against average and .895 save percentage in 34 games. He also spent three games in the ECHL with the Toledo Storm.

After the 2006-07 season, Liv elected to return to Jonkoping, where he further cemented his legacy as one of the top goaltenders in Elitserien. Upon the completion of HV71's championship season in 2009-10, Liv opened a new chapter in his career. He signed with KHL team Novosibirsk Sibir for the 2010-11 season, and played in the KHL All-Star game.

Donning the blue and gold of Team Sweden for what proved to be the final time, he made six appearances for the silver medal-winning team at the 2011 Worlds, primarily serving as the backup to AIK Stockholm netminder Viktor Fasth.

On May 4, 2011, Liv signed a contract with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Lokomotiv was a considerably stronger team than Novosibirsk, coming off a season in which the club finished third during the KHL regular season and earned a trip to the playoff semifinals before losing to HK Atlant. Entering the 2011-12 season, Lokomotiv was expected to remain a strong contender for the Gagarin Cup.

The team was en route from Yaroslavl to its regular-season opener in Minsk, Belarus, when its plane crashed seconds after takeoff.

Amidst the grief for the families and friends of all the crash victims, the loss of Liv has resonated especially profoundly among all who knew him. It also has left Sweden in mourning.

"I'm totally crushed," Tellqvist told Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. "I can only sit here and cry."

In Jonkoping, hundreds of fans got together outside of HV71's Kinnarps Arena to comfort one another in a candlelight vigil. The team opened the arena in the evening for all who wanted to join in a memorial. Over in the capital city of Stockholm, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt released a statement expressing his condolences:

"It's with great sorrow that I have received the news that hockey goaltender Stefan Liv has died in a plane crash in Russia. I remember him as a fantastic goalie, both for Tre Kronor (the national team) and in the Elitserien. My thoughts go out to his family and friends."

Playing for my favorite team growing up, I've probably scored that goal a million times in my driveway. It feels good to actually do it in real life.

— Dale Weise, who grew up a Canadiens fan, on scoring the overtime winner in Montreal's 5-4 victory against Tampa Bay in Game 1