ST. LOUIS -- Not only was Tuesday a special night for the St. Louis Blues, who unveiled their fourth coach in the last six years in Ken Hitchcock's debut behind the bench, but it was also an emotional night for those who had connections with Pavol Demitra and Igor Korolev.
The team honored the former Blues players prior to the game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Demitra and Korolev were among the 45 victims of the tragic plane crash in Russia that was carrying the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv KHL hockey team to its season-opening game. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, with one member of the flight crew being the only survivor.
Several Blues alumni and former teammates, including Brett Hull, Curtis Joseph, Geoff Courtnall, Keith Tkachuk, Reed Low, Tony Twist, Kelly Chase, Jamie Rivers, Scott Young, Jeff Brown, Jim Campbell, Peter Stastny, and current Blues defenseman Barret Jackman, as well as Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, assistant coach Mike Kitchen, Hawks forward Jamal Mayers and Demitra's best friend and Hawks forward Marian Hossa, were on hand for the pregame ceremony. Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak was also a close friend of Demitra's.
Korolev's family, including wife Vera and daughters Kristina and Anastasia (both born in St. Louis) were in attendance. Demitra's wife Maja and children Lucas (who was born in St. Louis) and daughter Zara could not attend.
Each was presented with No. 38 Blues jerseys as well as portraits of both players.
"I come here with a very heavy heart," Hull said. "... (Korolev) had a great work ethic and a smile that can light up a room."
Added Tkachuk, one of Demitra's close friends, "Some guys I'll never forget. ... Pavol Demitra was one of those guys. He played with a purpose and he played with joy."
"Great guy. I loved Pav. I loved coaching him," said Quenneville, who coached Demitra with the Blues from 1997-2004. "He was one of those guys that we had a good rapport, a good relationship.
"I knew all the signs of how we communicated without having to say anything. He'd sit on the bench and look back when he wanted to get back out there, 'Get me out there,' and I'd put him out there. You know why he wanted to be out, because he wanted to make a difference in the game. I like guys that love to score, and he was a competitive guy and a great guy."
Mayers was Demitra's teammate in St. Louis from 1997-2004 and remembers a player who was talented and competitive, but that was just as good a person off the ice as he was on it.
"As good of a player as everybody knows he was, what got lost somehow is how competitive he was," Mayers said. "He really wanted to win. He always treated everybody the same and was a great teammate and friend.
"Obviously it's such a tragic loss. They all have families. It's hard to put into words. It's pretty devastating."
Hossa was as close to Demitra and his wife Maja and their kids as anyone and was deeply hurt when he learned of the tragic news. But he also is appreciative of the Blues for putting together a nice tribute.
"It's definitely nice what they're doing here for two former players and a great friend of mine (Demitra)," said Hossa, who wears Demitra's No. 38 on his skates. "It's great to be a part of something like that and definitely it will bring some memories back. It's going to be an emotional start. Pavol's always going to be with us.
"I know (Maja). She's my neighbor (at home in Slovakia). We're a close group of guys in my hometown, and we told her we are here for her and her family."
Korolev's family was on hand for the ceremony, but Demitra's was not able to attend. The Blues' players will wear a special No. 38 patch on their jerseys tonight and there will be a game-worn jersey auction. Also, a Demitra-Korolev Fund has been established and will offer children a chance to play hockey in St. Louis and in Europe by paying their registration fees and/or purchasing hockey equipment they wouldn't otherwise have been able to afford.
"It's a sad story," Quenneville said. "Some guys stick out in your mind that you're fortunate to coach. When he (Demitra) came onto the scenes from playing at the minor-league level and a short opportunity in Ottawa, he came here and he just flourished. He had a great career. He's a special guy."
The Blues not only will feel the emotions of bringing in a new coach, but the tribute also will spur emotions beforehand.
"It's going to be nice to honor those guys," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "Of course it was a tragedy, but I think the fact that we set something up like this, it just speaks volumes of the impact that they had on this team when they were here.
"I know there's so many guys around here who have been touched by them. I think it's going to be great to give them the right honor that they deserve."