One such player is Wings defenseman Jakub Kindl
, who not only battled Salei for ice-time last season, he sat next to Salei in the dressing room.
Still visibly upset to know that Salei was among 43 passengers killed onboard a Russian airplane that crashed 150-miles northeast of Moscow, Kindl spoke of his friend and mentor a day after the accident.
“I was on my way to The Joe from the gym and I checked my phone and saw the news of the plane crash,” Kindl said. “I was like, ‘Oh, boy. Who could I possibly know from the team?’ ”
Almost immediately, Kindl typed out a text message on his cell phone and sent it to Salei’s number. “Maybe he’d text me back and say that he wasn’t on the plane,” Kindle thought. “I haven’t gotten a response, so I figured … that’s horrible. I can’t describe the feeling.”
Two others with close ties to the Wings’ organization – former defenseman and later assistant coach Brad McCrimmon and former goalie prospect Stefan Liv – also died when the Yak-42 Russian jetliner struggled to gain necessary speed for takeoff before it rolled to the left and slammed into a nearby river.
The three men were members of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team, which was scheduled to travel to Minsk for the start of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League Thursday night.
Kindl, 24, is the youngest defenseman on the Wings’ roster. He was the youngest last season, too, which made perfect sense to pair the old veteran with the kid, and not only as defensive partners – as they sometimes were – but stall mates in the dressing room.
“This guy was sitting with me for the whole year long,” said Kindl, shaking his head with his eyes fixed on the floor. “We played together, and we both were vying for a spot, to earn a job, you know? But we were friends. We weren’t enemies.”
The Wings signed Salei in August 2010 to vie for a spot as the No. 6 defenseman. He replaced the departed Andreas Lilja on the roster, and his sense of humor and honesty became an immediate hit among teammates, coaches and the news media that covers the team on a daily basis.
He always had a kind word or a sarcastic remark for everyone. But more importantly, he was a very caring family man, who really struggled with leaving his pregnant wife, Bethann, and two young children home in California while he spent the hockey season in Detroit. The couple welcomed their third child, a daughter, to the family last March.
“Yeah, I think it was hard on him, being away from his family last year and he made a lot of trips back to California to see them,” Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom
said Wednesday. “I know it wasn’t easy on him, but he loves playing hockey and that’s why he wanted to be here and be a part of our team.”
“I can’t even imagine what his wife is going through,” Kindl said.
But Kindl managed to momentarily crack a smile when asked about the good memories that he takes from having known Rusty.
“He would always give me a hard, flat pass, and I remember how it sometimes would disappear off of my stick and end up in the air, just like a grenade,” Kindl said. “He did that on purpose so I would learn how to control the puck. Those are the fun memories. Even in the warm-ups, he would always give me a hard pass so I couldn’t handle it.
“He definitely helped me become a better player. He was pushing me, and by giving me a hard time sometimes. But in a good way. He was a great guy with that great Russian accent, who would make you always laugh.”
The hockey world is a very small world. So it comes as no real surprise that Kindl now sits in the Wings’ dressing room next to someone who, like him, also knew a victim of Wednesday’s crash. Wings’ newcomer Mike Commodore is a former Carolina teammate of Josef Vasicek, who perished in the wreckage.
Over the next few months, it’s possible that Kindl and Commodore may share stories and experiences that they had with their former teammates who lost their lives.
But for now, Kindl says that he and Rusty were, “Soul mates, pretty much. We played on the same team. We were friends. It wasn’t like sometimes when you’re competing for a job or you’re trying to take someone’s job. He was very professional. … We were friends.”Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill