The horrific news hit most of us as we woke up this morning: A charter plane carrying members of the Kontinental Hockey League club Lokomotiv crashed shortly after takeoff near the city of Yaroslavl in Central Russia. Among the at least 43 people who died in the crash were several former NHLers, including coach Brad McCrimmon, Pavol Demitra, Karlis Skrastins, Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek, Jan Marek and Alexander Vasyunov. For Ducks fans, the crash hit even closer to home as it was later determined that former defenseman Ruslan Salei was among the victims. Salei was 36 years old and left behind a wife, Bethann, and three kids.
Salei, known by many as “Rusty,” was an icon in Ducks (or rather Mighty Ducks) history, having been drafted ninth overall by the organization in 1996 and playing the next 10 years in Anaheim. He still ranks fourth in team history (and first among defensemen) in games played with 594, trailing only Teemu Selanne
, Steve Rucchin and Paul Kariya. Known more as a shutdown defenseman than a goal-scorer, Salei still scored one of the biggest goals in Ducks history, an overtime game-winner in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against New Jersey on May 31, 2003. It was a goal that put Anaheim back in a series they had trailed 2-games-to-none, and Salei and the rest of the Mighty Ducks ultimately fell in seven games.
Here’s video of that memorable goal:
Unlike some of the players on that team, Salei didn’t get the chance to relive the glory of the Stanley Cup Final, as he left Anaheim as a free agent for Florida following a 2005-06 campaign in which he helped the Ducks make an improbable run to the conference final. Salei scored three goals in that postseason and on the defensive end was a major reason Anaheim upset Calgary and swept Colorado that year before losing to Edmonton in five games.
Salei spent close to two seasons with the Panthers before being traded to Colorado at the trade deadline in 2008. He spent two more seasons with the Avs, and last season reunited with former Mighty Ducks coach Mike Babcock in Detroit, where he had two goals and eight assists in 75 games. After playing 917 NHL games in 14 seasons, plus 62 postseason games, he signed with Lokomotiv in July. All the while, Salei's family kept a house in Orange County, a place the Russian-born Salei felt at home after a near-decade in Anaheim.
Ducks fans’ appreciation of Salei’s time here was never more evident than the first time he came back to Anaheim (with Colorado). After a video tribute to Salei during a timeout in that game, Ducks fans gave him a standing ovation as he acknowledged them from the bench. (Some fans have built a makeshift shrine around the Duck statue outside of Honda Center this afternoon.)
More important than the key goals, rocketed slapshots (he’s still seventh in franchise history in shots on goal) or jarring body checks, Salei was remembered for something more significant – as a great teammate. Teemu Selanne
played with Salei during the 2005-06 season, as well as during Teemu’s first stint in Anaheim, from 1996 through 2001. Selanne was noticeably emotional when talking about Salei following an informal skate at The Rinks – Anaheim ICE.
“He was a really good friend of mine and we always kept in touch,” Selanne said, struggling to find the words. “We played cards together a lot and had a lot of dinners together. I was so sad to hear about this and I still can’t believe it. When I heard the team went down in a plane crash, I was hoping he was hurt or something and wasn’t on the plane. What a sad, sad story. This is a dark day for everyone. He was such a great guy, a real team guy, always chirping. The kind of guy you really want in your dressing room. He played hard and he … just an overall great guy.
Teemu said he heard the news from his wife when he woke up this morning. “She told me there was a plane down in Russia and a hockey team was on it. I was almost scared to go on the internet and see which team it was, because I knew there was going to be a lot of people I knew very well. I played with [Karlis] Skrastins and I knew [Pavol] Demitra very well. I don’t even have all the names yet, but those are the ones I heard right away. It’s so sad.”
Todd Marchant, who was a teammate of Salei’s on that 2005-06 team, also spoke about his memories of Rusty. “He was great He was the type of guy that when he came into the room, he could lighten it up with a joke or just the way he talked. His personality was infectious. He just had this way about him. He didn't back down from anybody. He was always a guy who would stand up and hold people accountable. He was in charge of the card games on the planes. He was a great teammate and certainly a great friend. It's just a tragedy that his life had to end so soon.
“My nickname on the team was ‘T-Bone’ and he used to call me ‘Ribeye.' For whatever reason, he always called me ‘Ribeye.’ We got along great. We would always go out to dinner. He always was the type of guy who wanted to be around the team and his teammates. He and I actually kept in contact periodically after he left the team when he was in Florida, Colorado and last year in Detroit. He will be sorely missed. Our thoughts go out to his family, his wife and his three children.”Francois Beauchemin
, who was a fellow blueliner with Salei in 2005-06: “He was a great guy and we had a lot of fun together. I remember plane rides after games, playing cards, having fun and hanging out. It’s so sad. I heard it this morning after I got up. You turn the computer on and it’s the first thing you see. You think of his wife and their three kids. It’s just a sad day.
"Rusty would joke around, be sarcastic. Everybody loved him and it’s a sad moment for everybody.”
I had a few interactions with Rusty that season, but the one that stands out is the time he jokingly complained that the kids in his neighborhood were always knocking on his door, yelling, "Hey, Salei!" and asking him to play street hockey with them. He, of course, always obliged, conjuring an image that always made me laugh -- a 6-foot, 220-pound NHL defenseman knocking the puck around in the street with a bunch of 10-year-olds.
Salei was just one of the many who died in the crash, the latest tragedy in what has been a dreadful summer for the game of hockey, one in which we’ve already seen the shocking deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. Now this, the tragedy of losing an entire team to a plane crash, leaves us at a loss for words.
Said Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, "This is the darkest day in the history of our sport. This is not only a Russian tragedy, the Lokomotiv roster included players and coaches from 10 nations. This is a terrible tragedy for the global ice hockey community."
Everyone on that flight will be remembered, but for the Ducks community, the loss of a longtime favorite is overwhelming.
“He was too young to go. They all were,” Selanne said. "He was a father of three kids and … it’s just so sad.”