By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer
Upon hearing the tragic news of the plane crash in Russia, NHL player agent Rich Winter couldn't help but pay tribute to all those lost.
Because the majority of victims aboard the Yak-42 passenger plane were believed to be members of the Kontinental Hockey League club, Lokomotiv, Winter spoke candidly of two former clients and Lokomotiv teammates, Pavol Demitra and Josef Vasicek, and good friend and Lokomotiv coach Brad McCrimmon in an interview with Edmonton's Sports Radio Team 1260 on Wednesday.
"Vasicek is a young kid I've known since he was 15 years old," Winter told the station. "He was a lovable guy with a big smile. He'd never hurt anybody and everyone that's ever played with him loved him."
Vasicek, 30, was about to begin his fourth season in the KHL with Lokomotiv. He finished his NHL career with 77 goals and 183 points in 460 career games with Carolina, Nashville and the New York Islanders.
"I remember Joe looking at me sheepishly across the table at Edmonton wondering if he would get his name on the Cup because he hadn't played in the Finals (in 2006) and me advising him that he wouldn't unless he did," Winter said. "We talked to (then-Carolina coach) Peter Laviolette and figured out a way he could get in the lineup and he was excited. He had a few extra tickets for me to sit and watch him play and fulfill his dream of getting his name on the Stanley Cup."
Vasicek skated in 37 Stanley Cup playoff games with Carolina, producing 5 goals and 7 points. He was a member of the Hurricanes' Eastern Conference championship teams in 2002 and 2006, and got his name engraved on the Cup following the 2006 championship.
Winter's memories of Demitra dated back nearly two decades.
"I remember sitting at the draft (in 1993) with Pavol Demitra, who was waiting for the Ottawa Senators to draft him; he had a little red sports coat," Winter said. "It was unknown to him why he went so late (ninth round), but he committed to me the minute he was drafted that he would show these guys hard work and determination. He'd become the only ninth-round at forward that I've ever known that made the NHL team right after the draft."
Demitra, 36, last played in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks during the 2009-10 season. The Slovakian forward, who led Lokomotiv in scoring last season, played parts of 16 seasons in the League.
"We have to learn to appreciate these guys for what they are," Winter said. "They are gladiators and provide a lot of entertainment for us, but they give up and make a lot of personal sacrifice so that we can enjoy an evening in front of the TV watching a game we've either played or learned to love. These guys are really giving up a lot and, unfortunately, (on Wednesday) a large number of them have given up way more than we ever expected."
Winter admits he was always close with McCrimmon.
"The 'Beast' was just a guy that everybody loved," he said. "He was gregarious and full of life. I talked to him in the summer and was curious why he went over to Russia.
"He was really looking forward to the opportunity. Brad is a really smart guy … a lot of people see him as a rough, rugged defenseman, but he played an awful lot in the league, was very steady and organized and a very capable guy. I'm not sure why he never got the head coaching job he relished, but he was looking forward to leading a team and being a part of something different and using this as a learning experience."
McCrimmon, 52, had spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings before resigning May 19 to pursue head coaching opportunities. He took the job with Lokomotiv on May 29.
"Brad was jovial … would give you a bear hug and wrestle you in a head lock," Winter said. "He was full of fun and he was looking forward to this (coaching job). Hockey is a great experience, and these are the times that cause us to reflect on the great value of the lives that have touched us all."Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale