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Traktor Chelyabinsk honors memory of Tertyshny

by Bill Meltzer
The afternoon and early evening hours of July 23, 1999 started out pleasantly enough along Lake Okanagan. Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Dmitri Tertyshny, who had recently completed a promising NHL rookie season, went out for a day of boating in the Okanagan Valley near Kelowna, British Columbia, with fellow Russian defenseman, Mikhail Chernov, forward Francis Belanger and a local acquaintance of Belanger's. Tertyshny and Flyers minor league prospects Chernov and Belanger were taking a break from a summer power skating camp in Kelowna.

With Belanger piloting the rental boat, the other passengers were seated aboard the 17-foot vessel. At about 7:25 pm, the boat hit a steep wave and Tertyshny, kneeling on a seat on the bow, was thrown overboard. His friends watched in horror and anguish as the 22-year-old was run over by the power boat's propeller, which slashed his neck and jugular vein. Bleeding uncontrollably, an unconscious Tertyshny was brought back onboard as the boat returned to shore and an emergency crew arrived three minutes later. The young player was rushed to Kelowna General Hospital, but it was already too late. He bled to death at around 7:30 p.m. while still on the boat.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of the entire situation was the fact that Tertyshny and his wife, Polina, were expecting their first child at the time of the accident. She was fourth months pregnant with a boy the couple had already planned to name Alexander. In the wake of the horrific accident, the Flyers and their AHL farm team, the Phantoms, held a benefit game to raise money for the still-unborn child's future education. A pregame memorial was held in Tertyshny's hometown of Chelyabinsk, Russia, where he was a fine defenseman for Traktor Chelyabinsk (then of the Russian Super League, now of the Kontinental Hockey League) before making the jump to the NHL before the 1998-99 season.

For the last eight years, the Traktor organization has kept Tertyshny's memory alive by holding an annual 3-game preseason tournament in Chelyabinsk named in his memory. This year's installment, which saw the KHL's top farm club and junior club participate, concluded Aug. 28. Tertyshny's wife and 10-year-old son, who have made their permanent home in the Philadelphia area, were in attendance for the first time.

Alexander Tertyshny, who plays youth hockey for the Junior Flyers, is a defenseman just like his father. He also bears a striking physical resemblance to the father he never got to meet but has heard about from family, friends and former teammates of Dmitri's from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Tertyshnys are a hockey family. Dmitri's older brother, Sergei Tertyshny, had a long and successful career as a defenseman the Russian Super League for both Traktor and Metallurg Magnitogorsk. A draftee of the Washington Capitals (11th round of the 1994 Entry Draft), Sergei played two seasons in the American Hockey League with the Portland Pirates and suited up for Team Russia at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. He retired at age 36 after the 2005-06 season. Meanwhile, Dmitri and Sergei's younger cousin, Alexei Tertyshny, is still active in the KHL. A right winger, Alexei broke into the former Russian Super League with Traktor in 1995-96 and has since gone on to play for seven RSL/KHL teams, attaining a career-high 18 goals and 36 points for Metallurg in 2004-05 (a season in which the league was loaded with star talent due to the NHL work stoppage).

Dmitri Tertyshny played parts of four seasons with Traktor. Breaking into the Russian Super League as an 18-year-old, he was selected by Philadelphia in the sixth round of the 1995 NHL Entry Draft (132nd overall) after completing his rookie pro season. An outstanding skater and smooth outlet passer, Tertyshny concentrated more on taking care of his own end of the ice than pressing the offensive attack. As a result, his statistics never stood out much and few North Americans knew much about him when he arrived at his first NHL training camp in 1998.

Tertyshny spoke almost no English when he arrived, but he was eager to please, both on and off the ice. Unfailingly respectful to coaches and older teammates alike, he immediately impressed everyone around him with how eager he was to learn the North American game and to fit in on the club. He soon acquired the nickname "Tree"; a play both on the name Dmitri and his tall, lanky frame.

"I remember him as a real quality person and someone who you could tell right away was going to make it in the NHL," recalled former teammate Chris Therien.

Tertyshny was dogged in his commitment to earning an NHL job. When the team conducted its preseason fitness testing, he was unaware of what was going on. That morning, wearing no socks and shoes that weren't meant for long-distance running, he followed a group of players aboard a bus. He ran the six-mile course without uttering a complaint. It was only after he finished and removed his shoes that others noticed he had blisters all over his feet, some of which had burst and were bleeding.

He showed similar determination on the ice, working closely with assistant coach Craig Ramsay throughout the season. Inevitably, Tertyshny was one of the first Flyers players to arrive at the rink each day and one of the last to leave. Off the ice, with the assistance of his road-trip roommate, fellow Russian player Valeri Zelepukin, Tertyshny quickly adapted to NHL life. His command of English improved rapidly, and both he and Polina (who quickly grew close to Zelepukin's wife, Stella, and later to many the other players' spouses and girlfriends) quickly came to enjoy living in the Philadelphia area.

Initially expected to be sent to the AHL for further seasoning, Tertyshny instead spent the entire 1998-99 season with the Flyers. There were plenty of rookie mistakes along the way, but he usually bounced back quickly and avoided prolonged slumps. The rookie dressed in 62 regular season games and one more in the playoffs, scoring 2 goals and 8 assists. Although the team suffered a disappointing first-round playoff loss, Tertyshny told his wife and family in Russia that the season had been wonderful for him and that, after a short rest, he wanted to get a jump start on his preparations for the next season. In addition, with a baby on the way, he and Polina discussed moving out of their apartment in South Jersey and looking for a house.

Already considered an above-average skater even by NHL standards, Tertyshny signed up for the power skating seminar in Kelowna in the summer of 1999 to concentrate on developing a more explosive first stride and to further improve his economy of motion. It was yet another example of the young man's devotion to his craft. While in Kelowna, he roomed with Chernov, a well-regarded Flyers minor league prospect two years his junior whom Tertyshny had known from Chernov's time in the Russian Super League with Torpedo Yaroslavl and befriended at the Flyers' 1998-99 training camp.

And then came the tragic events of July 23. Earlier on the same day Dmitri died, Polina learned the baby she was carrying would be a boy (the couple had already decided on the name Alexander if it was a boy and Anastasia if it was a girl). A former art instructor in Russia, Polina temporarily put away her brushes and canvases and tried her best to stay strong through a tough pregnancy.

"I remember being in the hospital at home [in Russia] and it was very hard for me," she later recalled to Philadelphia Daily News writer Dana Pennett O'Neil. "The whole pregnancy was very difficult for me because of Dmitri, but I did it."

The Flyers family -- management, players and their wives -- did all it could to be supportive of Polina and the two prospects who watched their friend die before their eyes, but it was extremely difficult for all involved. Chernov was never the same player again, and eventually went back to play in Russia without having earned a spot in the NHL. Belanger, a power forward, struggled with substance abuse and later played briefly in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens.

Rather than returning to Russia, Polina remained in South Jersey to remain in the area she and Dmitri had planned to make a long-term home. Shortly before Alexander's birth, the Flyers' wives threw her a baby shower. Rather than choosing individual items off Polina's registry, they bought her everything on the list -- it took four cars to bring all of the items back to the Tertyshny's apartment.

Meanwhile, her closest friend, Stella Zelepukin, attended all of her prenatal checkups and helped serve as translator. When Polina went into labor, Stella accompanied her to Hahnemann University Hospital, where Polina delivered baby Alexander.

Forever touched by the kindness and caring of those around her, Polina has remained in the area ever since. The first American-born Tertyshny, Alexander, is now a hockey-loving 10-year-old who plays on the Junior Flyers. He and his mother recently took a trip to Russia to watch the Dmitri Tertyshny Memorial Tournament in person. Afterwards they spoke to Trakor's official Web site about their impressions of the tournament and their hopes for how Dmitri's memory could live in the future.

"I thought it was remarkable. Everything was well-organized, and we were so pleased. We were grateful to be included in the ceremony before and after the final match. It means so much to us," said Polina.

Asked if he would be interested in someday following his father, uncle and their cousin in playing for Traktor, Alexander replied that he would certainly be interested in someday playing either for the club where his relatives got their start in pro hockey or else for its top feeder team, the Polar Bears.

There have been suggestions in Chelyabinsk that future Tertyshny memorials could be conducted as an annual exhibition game between Traktor and the Philadelphia Flyers. While that does not seem to be in the works in the near future, young Alexander told the Traktor site that one idea he'd like to see would be the Polar Bears playing an exhibition against the Flyers' top farm team, the Adirondack Phantoms.

Regardless of how preseason memorials are arranged in the long-term future, one thing that is for certain is that Dmitri Tertyshny made a strong impression on all who knew him in his 22 years of life and that he's fondly remembered both in his homeland and the city he called home during his all-too-brief time in the NHL.

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