As busy as Nick Schultz was last season, starting the 2011-12 campaign with the Minnesota Wild and ending it in Edmonton, it seems like it was only yesterday when he and the rest of the hockey world were shaken.
On Sept. 7, 2011 at 4:05pm, the entirety of the KHL's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club perished in a plane crash as the squad set out to begin their season with a road game in Minsk. 44 of the 45 people onboard were killed as the aircraft clipped a radio tower shortly after takeoff and plummeted into the banks of the Volga River.
Today is the one-year anniversary of the accident.
Among those aboard: ex-NHLers Karlis Skrastins, Ruslan Salei and Schultz's ex-teammate with the Wild, Pavol Demitra.
"Last year being around the team, it was pretty tragic," Schultz said. "We lost a lot with Derek Boogaard, also a teammate of mine, and in that plane crash there were a lot of great guys, great teammates -- Pavol was one of them."
"(He was) someone I got a chance to play with and get to know pretty well. It's sad when you lose great guys like that -- guys that had families, a couple kids and a wife. It's something where you can't really put into words what you're feeling. In general, guys in the locker room were pretty down and upset."
Schultz and Demitra were teammates for two seasons with the Wild. Demitra, 37 at the time of his death, scored 40 goals and 188 points in 139 games with Minnesota and became an instant hit in the locker room because of his shy, but exceptionally driven demeanour.
"He was a pretty private guy," Schultz explained. "He kept to himself, but you could see how dedicated he was to hockey and to his family. He was a great player, somebody I remember playing against when he was in St. Louis; playing with (Keith) Tkachuk and the line they had. When he came to us playing with (Marian) Gaborik, I mean, he was a special player and really a great guy, a great team guy and someone that was fun to have around and get a chance to play with. He'll be missed."
Just recently, investigators determined that the pilot and co-pilot did not undergo the necessary training to operate the ill-fated Yak-Service Yak-42 airliner. That, in addition to previous results that concluded pilot error and mechanical issues also played a role in the accident, has players wary over the KHL's (and the participating nations') commitment to safety.
"I don't know a lot about it, but I've heard from a guy that I was training with over the summer that played over there, (and he) said it was OK. I don't know if it was a certain airline or the pilots, but it's something where I think for the most part, the safety is pretty good -- but it's something you've always got to be concerned about when you're over there and not familiar with those types of planes."
In line with all the Canadian teams, the Oilers charter on an Air Canada Airbus A320.
"Everybody's thought about it at some point or another," he said, noting that even a little bumpiness in the air can stir one's imagination. "We all knew a couple guys and people that we were close with on that team, so it was pretty tough -- pretty sad."
As a result of the accident 365 days ago, the Lokomotiv hockey club canceled its participation in the 2011-12 season. Eager to rebuild this past summer, ex-NHLers Curtis Sanford, Sami Lepisto, Victor Kozlov, Staffan Kronwall, Niklas Hagman and Vitaly Vishnevsky all signed with Yaroslavl to help begin a new chapter in the team's rebirth.
Thursday night in Novosibirsk the Lokomotiv returned to action, winning their season-opener vs. Sibir 5-2. Kronwall led the way with three assists.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick