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Stars players mourn loss of former teammate Skrastins

by Staff Writer / Dallas Stars

It was a somber scene at the Dallas Stars practice facility Wednesday in Frisco after the news filtered into the dressing room: the tragic plane crash in Russia had claimed the lives of 43 people, with all but one member of the KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, including former Stars defenseman Karlis Skrastins, perishing in the accident.

Skrastins proudly wearing his Team Latvia sweater prior to the 2010 Olympic Games. Trey Hill photo
After an outstanding 13-year NHL career, including the last two seasons in Dallas, the 37-year-old Skrastins opted to embark on a new adventure for 2011-12 and play in Russia. His new team was en route to its first game of the KHL season when their flight from Yaroslavl to Minsk went down right after takeoff.

“The Dallas Stars family is shocked and saddened by the passing of Karlis Skrastins and so many other young lives in a plane crash today in Russia,” said Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk. “It’s been a hard summer for the NHL, but this obviously is devastating news. It hits home very hard here, because ‘Scratch’ was a great teammate for a lot of guys and always gave his hardest on the ice and was very much-loved by his teammates. It’s just tragic news.”

In addition to Skrastins, former Dallas opponents such as Pavol Demitra and Ruslan Salei, not to mention former NHLers like Brad McCrimmon, Igor Korolev and Alexander Karpovtsev, who were the team’s head coach and assistants, respectively, also passed away in the crash.

To the collection of Stars players skating at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Frisco in preparation for the start of training camp on Sept. 16, the death of their friend and former teammate was difficult to digest.

“It’s so sad. I just heard the news this morning and I was just in shock,” said Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas. “I got nothing but good things to say about Karlis. I knew the head coach there, too, Brad McCrimmon, who was (an assistant coach) with Detroit, so it’s been a tough summer for the NHL. I don’t know what to say. It’s one of those things that you don’t wish to happen to anybody. It’s just a sad day for us.”

“It’s difficult. I think a lot of these guys are devastated,” Nieuwendyk said. “I think Kari Lehtonen came in this morning, heard the news and turned around and went right out of here, home. I think he was close with Karlis and everybody respected the way Karlis played for us and gave his all every night and never complained. He had a big effect on all his teammates.”

Skrastins, a gritty defensive defenseman from Latvia who led the Stars with 139 blocked shots last season in 74 games, was remembered as a great teammate and a giant-hearted, soft-spoken good guy.

“Karlis was just one of those guys, a nice team guy who would do anything for the team,” Robidas said. “I’ve never seen anybody block shots like that, just played through pain and never complained about his ice time or anything like that. He just worked hard, just a nice person, a nice family man and I had a lot of fun with him. I have nothing but good things to say about this guy.”

“Just a kind, kind man,” said Stars forward Adam Burish, describing Skrastins. “Quiet. Always said hi in the morning, always said bye when he left the rink to everyone, just a kind, gentle guy and a freak on the ice - just the ultimate competitor, played through anything, tough, but just a kind guy.”

Of course, one of the worst aspects of the devastating news is thinking about the family members who are left behind to grieve. In Skrastins’ case, it means his wife Zane and two daughters, plus perhaps another, have suffered a monumental loss.

“It’s just too bad, leaving his wife and kids behind like this,” said Robidas shaking his head. “I think his wife was pregnant, too, so it’s pretty sad.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Karlis’ wife Zane and his two daughters, Karolina and Laurena, as well as all of the families and friends who lost loved ones on the plane,” Nieuwendyk said. “Karlis was a wonderful father and husband, as well as a good friend. He will be greatly missed.”

The tragedy also evoked feelings of vulnerability among a group of professional athletes who continually criss-cross North America on airplanes as they travel to and from games.

“It is scary, especially that they all died, except but one survivor, was it?” Robidas said. “It’s pretty scary.”

“It’s scary that you think about how many flights you’ve been on and how many flights you’ll go on this year,” Burish added. “All the guys, we were talking about that today. All of us were saying, as sad as it is, it’s only a matter of time before somebody’s flight – I mean, you fly in bad weather, your plane sometimes is probably too heavy with all the gear we got on it and all the junk you bring along on the trips, so it’s kind of scary. There are times you have bumpy flights, flying late at night like two in the morning, you’re in the air and there’s lightning going on around you. There’s a lot of scary flights, as many as you take throughout the year.”

Now, with the opening of Stars training camp just over a week away, somehow the players will have to deal with their grief and get back to work, but it won’t be easy.

“I think it’s something that you will think about,” Burish admitted. “He sat right next to me (in the locker room) last season, and now I think the day we start camp, we jump on a flight and go to PEI - how do you not think about your teammate, your buddy that you were just sitting next to on a flight and in the locker room that was on a plane that went down? You’ll probably always think about it.”

“This is something that you don’t get over easy,” Nieuwendyk said. “Unfortunately in these situations, you have to move on, it’s just really sad. It takes time.”

And when something like this happens in the sports world, it reminds all of us that there sometimes is more to life than the game we all love. While struggling to come to grips with what occurred, Robidas summed up the sentiments of many:

“It kind of reminds you that you got to enjoy life and enjoy every moment because you never know.”

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