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Trying summer sends players in search for solace

Thursday, 09.08.2011 / 6:11 PM / NHL Insider

By Dave Lozo - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Trying summer sends players in search for solace
There's no blueprint for dealing with tragedy, and there's certainly no proper way to react when tragedy is relentlessly showing up on your doorstep.
There's no blueprint for dealing with tragedy, and there's certainly no proper way to react when tragedy is relentlessly showing up on your doorstep.

During the past four months, the hockey world has been overwhelmed by a near-constant wave of horrific news that began with the shocking death of Derek Boogaard in May and ended -- hopefully -- with the deaths of 43 people when the team plane of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL crashed in Russia on Wednesday.

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In between, 27-year-old Rick Rypien was found dead at his Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, home on Aug. 15 and the recently retired Wade Belak, a father of two, died in a Toronto hotel 16 days later.

When one mourning period was ending, it seemed another was beginning.

"The whole summer," Tampa Bay Lightning star Martin St. Louis said, "we really haven't had a chance to catch our breath with one thing after another."

As more than 30 NHL stars embarked on their media tour through New York on Thursday morning, the pain of losing so many friends and ex-teammates in the Lokomotiv plane crash was still fresh. Just some of the former NHL players who were on that doomed flight included Brad McCrimmon, Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, Igor Korolev and Alexander Vasyunov.

New York Rangers center Brad Richards had a hard time finding the words to describe what he felt when he learned Karlis Skrastins, his teammate for two years with the Dallas Stars, was on the Lokomotiv flight. The crash hit closer to home for Richards than it did for some, because he played in Russia during the NHL work stoppage of 2004-05

"I played over there for a little bit and did a little bit of that travel, so it shocked me a little when you thought back," Richards said.

But the hardest part for Richards was knowing what the death of Skrastins meant on a painfully personal level.

"His wife is three months pregnant," Richards said. "He was a good professional who took care of his business and took care of his family real well. There's really not much you can say besides it's terrible."

Zach Parise didn't get the chance to know Vasyunov, who made his NHL debut with the Devils last season. Parise was away from the team rehabbing his injured knee when the 23-year-old played 18 games and scored his only career NHL goal.

Parise is one of many NHL players who wasn't close with anyone who died in the past four months, but he feels the effects of having close friends who had ties to those players.

"You could tell with (Dainius Zubrus), it got to him. He was sad," Parise said. "I think all of us were sad. I was looking at NHL.com last night and they had the picture of him and you click on his picture and see the profile and you're like, 'He's 23 years old.' It's so sad to see that happen. I'm sure on every team in the NHL, everyone knew someone who was impacted one way or another. It's terrible to see. It's awful."

Pavol Demitra. (Photo: Getty Images)
St. Louis Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak was friends with Demitra and played with him on Slovakia's national team. Halak is entering his second season playing in a city that Demitra called home for most of his career, a city that still remembers him fondly.

"I still can't believe that he's gone," Halak said. "It's a big tragedy for everybody. I cannot imagine how it must be for his family, for his wife. I know his wife and they've got two kids. It's got to be so hard.

"He played in St. Louis and he was part of that team for eight years. Even now, people are always reminding me that he played there and he was a great player for the Blues and also for our national team. It's really a big loss for our country. When you know the guy, it's hard to describe what is going through your mind."

Training camps across the League will open next week, marking the first step in the slow return to normalcy for many players. Being around friends and teammates will undoubtedly help, but getting past the emotional devastation of this summer won't be as simple as participating in skating drills and firing pucks into an empty net.

The losses that many suffered this summer will linger for weeks, months, years and, for some, a lifetime. But remembering what happened -- and in some cases, learning from it -- is important for some.

"Things that happen in the summer, you'll never forget," Parise said. "That's just the way it's going to be. You have to remember. It's important for people to remember it. It's always going to be there. You can't prevent a plane crash, but the other things, you try to do everything you can to help prevent it and make sure that doesn't happen again."

The Islanders' Michael Grabner is one of the few who has felt the loss twice as hard. He played with both Demitra and Rypien in Vancouver, putting him in a more unpalatable and unfair position than most of his peers.

"You know their families and you know that there is so much more to them than just hockey players and how this has been an awful, awful year for the losses that are so unseen. That's probably the hardest part. You understand that there are going to be tragedies, but you never expect it to come in the wave it has." -- Shane Doan
"Everyone probably thought about 'what if' a plane crashes," Grabner said. "It's tough to hear. I woke up in the morning and read it online. I was just in shock. It could have been any of us. It's tough to see. Hopefully all of their families will be all right.

"It was a tough summer for the hockey world. You just have to try to move forward and move on."

Belak spent his final three seasons with the Nashville Predators and was set to work on the team's television broadcasts this season. He was known as a fun-loving, charismatic person, and that's how former teammate Pekka Rinne is choosing to remember him.

"It is a pretty big topic right now in Nashville, and we’ve talked about it as a team," Rinne said. "He was that kind of guy that you couldn’t help but love the guy. He was such a big influence, and not only on our team but the whole community and the Nashville area. I think right now we just have to remember all the things he’s done there and we all have a great memory of him. We all just have to move on and respect his memory and play hockey. That’s what I think he would want to see."

Brad McCrimmon (Photo: Getty Images)
Coyotes captain Shane Doan briefly was teammates with Korolev and McCrimmon, but got to know them on a personal level. Doan isn't a grief counselor, but if anyone has the proper idea about moving forward and dealing with the waking nightmare that has been the past four months, it's seemingly him.

"Without being cavalier about 'hockey is our life,' because it is -- it really isn't. It really, really isn't," Doan said. "As vital and important and instrumental as hockey is in my life, it is not the fabric of my life. Hopefully, people can a get a perspective on how important it is to enjoy the moments that we get when we play and how blessed we are to have the opportunities that hockey has given us and be thankful and grateful.

"I played with Igor Korolev my first year in Winnipeg and Brad McCrimmon came to Phoenix our first year in Phoenix. You know their families and you know that there is so much more to them than just hockey players and how this has been an awful, awful year for the losses that are so unseen. That's probably the hardest part. You understand that there are going to be tragedies, but you never expect it to come in the wave it has.

"Hopefully we never have to go through anything like this again. It seems like there is no rhyme or reason, and hopefully the people that are friends and family can remember them and think about them and appreciate the blessings that we have been given."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo


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