This already has been an incredibly sad hockey off-season; the news early this morning (around 7 o’clock CT) of the plane crash into the Volga River, near Yaroslavl, Russia, marks this as hockey’s worst summer ever.
At least 43 have died as the result of the crash of the chartered YAK-42 passenger jet, carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team to Minsk, Belarus, where the season opener was scheduled for tomorrow night.
You would be familiar with the names of many of the victims: Coach Brad McCrimmon, forward Pavol Demitra, defenseman Ruslan Salei have been listed among them. Also listed are ex-Predators Josef Vasicek, defensemen Robert Dietrich and Karlis Skrastins. Vasicek spent part of the 2006-07 season with the Predators before being traded back to Carolina. Dietrich, a 2007 draft pick by the Predators, played two seasons (from 2008-2010) with the Milwaukee Admirals, then returned to Europe. He also represented Germany three times in the World Juniors and twice in the Senior World Championships.
Karlis Skrastins, with no disregard nor disrespect for the other victims, will be the focus here. Karlis was universally regarded as a top four defenseman during the course of his 12 full NHL seasons. Although recognized by Predators’ scouts as a good international prospect while playing for TPS Turku and in the World Championships in the spring of 1998, he was taken in the 9th round of that year’s draft, just weeks before his 24th birthday.
Yet, Karlis was the first member of the Predators’ first Entry Draft Class (which included David Legwand
and Denis Arkhipov in the first and third rounds, respectively) to play an NHL game – as a matter of fact, he played two during the team’s first season, before Legwand was in the line-up for the final game that year. When Skrastins first put on a Predators’ uniform, there was an “h” at the end of his nameplate; because that’s the way his name is pronounced.
One of a considerable contingent of Latvian players to make the National Hockey League, Karlis was shy about interviews because of his initial difficulties with English – but he was always willing to cooperate. As many people adjusting to the language, he had difficulty with the “th” diphthong, and would substitute the “s” sound for it. As a result, he got the nickname “Sanks,” because he was always thanking coaches, staffers, and his teammates.
Personally, I will never forget his first trip to New York City in late January of 2000. The team bus pulled up in front of the hotel in Times Square, and as Karlis exited, I thought he was going to sprain his neck as he looked up in amazement at Times Square itself, along with the skyscrapers. He wasn’t in Riga any longer!
He was often partnered with Drake Berehowsky, later Mark Eaton and Richard Lintner, defensemen who had more offensive upside. That left Karlis to play the physical role in front of the net. He had the job of contending with players like Todd Bertuzzi (then of Vancouver). By that point in his career, Bertuzzi had perfected a pushing off move to separate himself from defensemen like Skrastins. One night at 501 Broadway, that move resulted in a cross-check to the face, a broken nose for Skrastins, a goal (and no penalty) for Bertuzzi. Skrastins just publicly accepted that as part of the game.
In all, Karlis played 302 games for the Predators, not missing a game in his last three seasons (2000 – 2003), beginning a streak of 495 consecutive games played, and the record for an NHL defenseman. Skrastins also played for Colorado (with whom his record streak ended), Florida, and the last two seasons with Dallas before deciding to sign with Yaroslavl.
Already today, Skrastins’ former teammate in Nashville and Florida, Washington Capitals’ goaltender Tomas Vokoun was reported distraught at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex this morning. Vokoun played parts of seven NHL seasons with Skrastins in front of him.
Perhaps Rene Fasel, President of the International Ice Hockey Federation, put it best in the aftermath of the crash. “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," said Fasel, "This is a terrible tragedy for the global ice hockey community."
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s sentiments were similar: "Though it occurred thousands of miles away from our home arenas, this tragedy represents a catastrophic loss to the hockey world -- including the NHL family, which lost so many fathers, sons, teammates and friends who at one time excelled in our League. Our deepest condolences go to the families and loved ones of all who perished.”
All of this comes as we near the 10th Anniversary of the Attacks of 9-11-01 and on the heels of what the NHL has had to handle with the summertime deaths of Derek Boogard, Rick Rypien, and the Predators’ own Wade Belak. We can only hope – and feel – that this marks the end of the NHL’s most tragic summer.