Commentary

Salei's family lives on through grief

Updated: September 6, 2012, 9:55 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Bethann Salei visits her husband's grave in a special cemetery reserved for war heroes, politicians and other luminaries and regularly finds gifts and flowers left by strangers.

Her son Aleksandro, all of 5 years old, dons an Anaheim Ducks jersey with the familiar "Salei" stitched across the shoulders and his father's No. 24 on the back, as he drops the ceremonial puck at a tournament named in Ruslan Salei's honor in Minsk. Fans repeatedly ask Bethann if she's hoping her son becomes an NHL player, as though it is somehow fated that it should be so.

Meanwhile, at the family's home in California, Ruslan Salei's toothbrush sits in its familiar place in the couple's bathroom. His suits, left behind when he joined Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League in the summer of 2011, hang as a silent reminder of all that has changed, all that has been lost.

These are the strange places that grief and tragedy take us, and this is reality for Bethann since her husband Ruslan Salei and 43 others aboard the Lokomotiv team charter perished when the aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff en route to the team's first regular-season game.

When we first hear Bethann's voice on the phone from Belarus, the giggles and murmurs of three children under the age of 8 are heard in the background. When she calls back later, her two daughters and son are asleep, and there is a sense that these are the moments when the memories are most poignant.

For the past few years, Ruslan Salei had been building a family home near his hometown of Minsk, a place for the family to stay when they visited his birthplace and a place to call home when he returned for business or vacation.

Bethann had seen it in various stages of construction before it was completed but now, having been in Belarus since the end of July, she marvels at how it seems it was built with her and the kids in mind.

"It's like he built it just for me. It doesn't look like a man picked out anything," she said with a small chuckle.

[+] EnlargeSalei
AP Photo/Louis LopezFive-year-old Aleksandro Salei told his mother he can't wait to be a papa so he can take care of her like his papa did.

"It's definitely not a bachelor's home."

The home reminds her, as so many things do, of the man she loved and the hole that has been torn in the fabric of her life.

That she has to share her grief with others who revered but did not know her husband adds another layer of complexity to an already confusing time.

"People come every day" to the gravesite, she said with more than a note of wonderment.

"I feel like he doesn't belong to me in some way," she said. "Everyone feels close to him."

Sept. 7 marks the first anniversary of one of the greatest sports tragedies ever and certainly the greatest tragedy ever visited on the sport of hockey.

Bethann Salei will be there as the KHL will keep its schedule dark to mark the day. There will be a ceremony in Yaroslavl, Russia, and maybe the beginning of something like closure for some or at least a step towards something more than overwhelming grief.

"I need to see where it happened," Bethann said.

She doesn't expect she will ever return, but she needs to be there now.

"I feel like I can't move forward because it's consumed me," she admitted.

"I think there can never be closure when you lose someone you love so much. But I also feel like I'm ready to start my life again in some way."

One of the reasons Bethann feels compelled to make the arduous trip this week is to connect in person with "the girls," the wives and girlfriends of the other players and coaches who were lost in the crash.

They have developed a kind of bond, a community, via email, Facebook and phone calls, but this will be the first chance she gets to meet many of them in person.

Bethann acknowledged she didn't know what to expect in the wake of the crash. This was a KHL team. Even though there were many players with NHL connections, most of them were Europeans. Yet the support was quick and unconditional from every corner of the hockey world.

Still, no matter the acts of kindness from outside there remains an insular element to this kind of tragedy, things that are absolutely unique to the families involved.

Among the effects Bethann collected after identifying her husband's body was a camera. Part of the casing was melted, damaged, yet the computer disc holding the images remained inexplicably intact. She put it in her camera and discovered pictures of her husband and teammate Karlis Skrastins during Lokomotiv's training camp. They'd been in Switzerland for part of the camp and the coaches had wanted the players to do dry land training by running in the mountains. Apparently Salei and Skrastins balked and, given their place as respected veterans, were allowed to ride bikes. The pictures show the two of them goofing around enjoying what would be their final days.

Those pictures are an unexpected treasure, although as with all such reminders of what has been lost, they are tinged with sadness.

Bethann looks forward to meeting Skrastins' family, which also includes three small children, the youngest of which was born several months after the crash. The two men were actually traded for one another at the 2008 NHL trade deadline, and the families ended up using each other's homes and vehicles but have never met.

Now it's expected they will meet on the anniversary of the players' deaths.

A California native, Bethann spent 14 years with Salei. His teammate Pavel Trnka was dating one of Bethann's girlfriends. Salei had learned some of his English watching the Sopranos, so there was a kind of New Jersey hitch to his speech patterns, which was both peculiar and endearing.

[+] EnlargeRuslan Salei
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesWhen Ruslan Salei met his wife, he had learned English by watching the Sopranos, so he had a New Jersey hitch to his speech patterns, which Bethann described as both peculiar and endearing.

He went home to Belarus for three months and when he returned for the next season, the two became inseparable. Their third child, Ava, was born a little more than five months before the Lokomotiv crash.

Salei was with the Ducks when GM Brian Burke took over the team after the lockout. One night in San Jose during the 2005-06 season, the rugged defenseman took a deflected puck in the eye. He flew home with Burke and, in the town car en route from the airport, Salei asked if Burke was planning to trade him at the trade deadline because the Ducks weren't assured of a playoff spot. The GM said he wouldn't trade him and would do his part to help him find a new team in the offseason when Salei was set to become an unrestricted free agent.

Salei stayed and was part of a spirited, unexpected run to the Western Conference finals.

"He was excellent for us," Burke said in a recent interview.

Burke recalled head coach Randy Carlyle introducing a rule at practice that the last player to join the group after a drill had to skate a lap. Often it was Salei and he would do his lap, laughing and cursing the whole time.

"The guys were howling," recalled Burke, who returned last fall to Anaheim to attend a special ceremony honoring Salei at the Honda Center.

It was a measure of Salei's good nature and the tremendous respect he had earned in the dressing room that a veteran could accept such "punishment" with such good humor.

"You couldn't do that if he wasn't a great guy," Burke said.

Salei played his last NHL season in Detroit in the 2010-11 season. During training camp, the veteran mentioned how he was missing his family already but was excited about the opportunities brought on by playing with the Red Wings and his former coach in Anaheim.

Last summer, he and Bethann talked about his playing options given that the Red Wings weren't interested in having him return.

"He wondered, 'Should I try and play one more year? Win a Cup?' " Bethann said.

But there were no guarantees of either employment or money or a Stanley Cup, and the KHL offered the kind of security that was important to a man who was set to turn 37 last November with three small children to consider.

"He was there for the money. He didn't want to leave the (NHL)," Bethann said.

In the end, thinking of his family and their future, Salei chose the financial security even though it meant the uncertainty of playing in the KHL.

One day shortly after he'd decided to go to Russia, Salei told Bethann they needed to get their estate planning in order.

Now, instead of planning for the future, Bethann makes plans to visit the place where her husband perished and her son, Aleksandro, is the hockey-playing Salei.

"It's tough. He's only 5 years old. He loved playing hockey before the accident," Bethann said.

But since the accident, without his dad there to offer encouragement, it's been more difficult.

"I still kind of push him to play," the boy's mother said.

The children, who knew their father not so much as a national sports hero and professional athlete but simply as the doting father who played with them, swam in the pool with them, brightened their days, have kept their emotions well hidden.

"They keep it all inside. They've never once cried about what happened," Bethann said.

"I always told them, if you want to cry it's good, it's healthy."

In the days leading up to the memorial tournament in Minsk where Bethann was asked to give an address to the packed stadium, Bethann found herself in tears. Aleksandro came to her and told her he couldn't wait to be a papa himself.

When Bethann asked why, Aleksandro told her it was because if he was a papa she wouldn't have to cry anymore because he would take care of her.

"He wants to take care of me like his papa did," she said.