Pavol Demitra will be honored in a series of charity exhibition games in Slovakia next month, almost three years after he and 43 other passengers died in a plane crash in Yaroslavl, Russia.
A group of Slovakian All-Stars and alumni from the St. Louis Blues will participate in three games to raise money for grass-roots hockey in Slovakia. The first game will take place Aug. 20 in Poprad, to be followed on Aug. 22 in Trencin and Aug. 23 in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava.
Slovakian legend Anton Stastny is one of the players participating in the game, as are former Blues players Kelly Chase, Lubos Bartecko, Scott Young, Jamal Mayers, Marc Bergevin, Bernie Federko and Tyson Nash. Almost all the Blues players participating played at some point with Demitra, who played eight seasons in St. Louis from 1996 to 2004.
"[Demitra] just got along with everyone. He came in a room and he didn't have to say much, but people liked him and he always took time for everyone in his own way," Chase said. "You go to talk to these guys and everyone says the same thing. This guy was just solid. We just had a real liking for him because he had a great personality. You want to be around a guy like that because he was good to everyone."
The games were organized primarily by Chase and Bartecko, a Slovakian who lived with Demitra when he first arrived in St. Louis during the 1998-99 season. Chase and Bartecko have worked tirelessly on the event and collaborated with the NHL Players' Association and the Blues to help collect equipment for youth hockey players in Slovakia.
"The alumni will fly over to Slovakia and play a few exhibition games in memory of Pavol. Just kind of be there and go see his family and pay respect," Bartecko said. "I kind of liked the idea and talked to a few different people in Slovakia to see if it would be difficult to organize it. That's how it came across and we've been talking over the year and organizing this. We put it together and we're doing it. We're excited about it."
Demitra was playing for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League when the team's plane crashed shortly after takeoff on Sept. 7, 2011. Of the 45 passengers and staff onboard, flight engineer Alexander Sizov was the lone survivor.
Demitra was 36 when he died, leaving behind a wife and two children. He also had forged a proud hockey legacy in his home country. He was a ninth-round pick (No. 227) of the Ottawa Senators in the 1993 NHL Draft, but went on to play 847 games with the Senators, Blues, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild and Vancouver Canucks. Demitra scored 304 goals and 768 points.
He was also an icon in Slovakia, serving as an alternate captain on the national team that finished fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He was an integral part of the upstart Slovakian squad's run to the semifinals, leading the tournament with 10 points in seven games.
"Pavol is one of the few guys that had a huge impact on everybody, whoever played with him. He was always there for everybody if you ever needed him. He was a great teammate and a great guy off the ice," said Bartecko, also a member of that 2010 Olympic team. "I don't care where you are in Slovakia, you mention his name and everybody knows what he was and what he accomplished and what he did for the fans and for people."
Since the crash, events have been held in Slovakia and St. Louis to honor Demitra's memory. But these games will mark the first time Demitra's peers from both hockey communities will come together on this scale. The focus of these games will certainly be Demitra, who will also be the subject of a documentary film coming out in Slovakia later this summer. But the objective of this exhibition series will also be to raise funds for a variety of charities in the country where Demitra's legend still looms large.
"That's what we want to do. We want to remember him, who he was and what he has done," Bartecko said. "Just spread the feelings and memories with everybody else."