One year later, loss still painful
The moment Jan Filc heard the news that the Lokomotiv Jaroslavl team plane had crashed shortly after takeoff a year ago, he frantically began calling all of the numbers he had for countryman Pavol Demitra.
The former coach of the Slovak national team had come to know Demitra, not just as a top player but as a friend. Filc knew the longtime NHLer and Slovak icon had been injured in training camp before the start of the Kontinental Hockey League season and hoped against hope that Demitra was not on board the ill-fated flight.
Hoped against hope that Demitra would answer.
Hoped against hope that the feeling of dread that had settled in his stomach would suddenly pop like a bubble into relief and thankfulness at the sound of Demitra answering the call.
But the phone kept ringing.
Calls of hope like the one that went out from Filc's phone rang out all over the hockey world a year ago.
Friends, family, colleagues dialing and then waiting in vain for the 44 voices that had been silenced when the plane carrying the KHL team to its first regular-season game in Minsk never got fully airborne and crashed. All but two of the passengers died on impact. One of the survivors, Alexander Galimov, died in the hospital five days later. Flight engineer Alexander Sizov was the sole survivor.
Demitra's numbers remain programmed into Filc's cellphone.
Friday, Sept. 7, marks the first anniversary of the crash and marks an opportunity to reflect on the men whose collective impact on the hockey world cannot easily be summed up.
How do you explain with any kind of justice the loss of a group of men who were fathers, brothers, husbands, teammates, friends, mentors and confidants united by a shared love of a game?
A year later, it is inspiring and sobering to think of their impact in their hometowns, in their home countries and in the cities in which they played this game and to think of the legacy they leave.
Agent Matt Keator was a scout with the Blues when they acquired Demitra and would go on to represent him.
Just days before the crash, Keator was in Riga, Latvia, at a weekend tournament near the end of training camp, visiting with Demitra and members of the team and the coaching staff.
"We had a great time," he said. "It was a very lively, fun group."
Even as friends and families of the crash victims made their way to Jaroslavl for a ceremony to mark the first anniversary, there remained very much a sense of disbelief that it happened at all.
"It just feels like such a waste. Losing people that were that young and that vibrant," Keator said.
"I still think the emotions for everybody are still very raw," Keator added. "Nobody will ever forget, obviously. I think the emotions will always be there.
"It's still very shocking and sad."
The fact the accident took place so far from North America and for the most part involved European and Russian players and coaches also has made putting the loss in some perspective even more challenging.
Over the phone, you can hear Peter Stastny's voice catch as he talks about the loss. We have called to ask specifically about countryman Demitra, but Stastny clearly remains stung by the loss to the hockey community as a whole.
A Hall of Famer who defected from the former Czechoslovakia in 1980, Stastny played against and with a number of those who died in Jaroslavl. His son, Paul, born in the United States and a member of the U.S. Olympic team that won a silver medal in Vancouver in 2010, played alongside some on the ill-fated flight, such as Ruslan Salei and Karlis Skrastins, and faced off against others.
The ripple of sadness from the crash's epicenter would reach every corner of the hockey world. It seemed as though every player, coach, GM, scout or agent had some personal connection to those who died.
European players around the NHL, especially, were deeply hurt by the loss, and some, such as New Jersey star Ilya Kovalchuk, were moved to try to raise money for the families of those left behind. As did others, he attended memorial services in Russia shortly before the start of the regular season a year ago.
Kovalchuk has quietly worked to ensure that help reaches the families of all of those on board, not just those with NHL connections.
Teams around the NHL have honored the fallen, and KHL officials told ESPN.com that all of those killed had their contracts or salary commitments honored by the league.
The league has canceled games for the anniversary, and officials told ESPN.com there will be a silent march through Jaroslavl to the crash site, where white balloons will be released at the exact moment the crash took place.
The KHL has renamed the inaugural game of each season the Lokomotiv Cup. That game took place Wednesday in Moscow between last season's league finalists, Dynamo Moscow and Avangard Omsk. Among the dignitaries on hand were Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky, who were in Russia to help commemorate the 1987 Canada Cup.
When it comes to hockey, we have a tendency to be North American-centric. It's natural. The best players congregate in Canada and the United States to play in the NHL and, as a result, it's easier to dismiss those outside that sphere or to be dismissive of the game outside the 30 NHL cities. Yet to understand the impact of the Lokomotiv tragedy is to understand how keenly the loss is felt in the towns and countries where these players grew up and learned to play the game that became their lives and, in some way, we suppose, led to their deaths.
Peter Stastny was in St. Louis when the Blues acquired Demitra from Ottawa in 1996.
"He was like a member of my family," the Hall of Famer said. "He was a fantastic friend. He did not have enemies. He was a great leader. Very charismatic.
"I just couldn't believe what happened. He was special to me, and he was special to Slovak hockey."
When Demitra's remains were returned to Slovakia and his hometown of Trencin, "It was like a national funeral."
"It was very, very difficult to grasp it. It still is," Stastny said.
There are plans to name a rink and a school for Demitra, and there are awards for top young players that also will honor him, Stastny said.
Stastny recalled being at the world championship in Slovakia in spring 2011 a few months before the crash. Demitra had announced that this would be his swan song playing for the national team, and the belief was he would retire completely after the KHL season. It was fitting that a player who had reached iconic status in his home country would wear his national jersey one last time at home.
Stastny recalled Demitra tossing his jersey with the familiar No. 38 on the back and bits of equipment into the stands, his eyes red with emotion.
Although not drafted until the 227th pick in the 1993 draft, Demitra blossomed with the Blues into a feared scorer with great speed and a quick release.
On a breakaway or shootout, he was money, and he finished his career with 768 points in 847 regular-season games. At one point, Demitra played with countrymen Michal Handzus and Lubos Bartecko to form a dangerous forward unit. At home, the national pride at their success was palpable.
Later, in 2001, Handzus and another Slovak star, Ladislav Nagy, were traded to Phoenix for Keith Tkachuk. And, although it was disappointing for Demitra to see his countrymen leave, he soon found terrific chemistry playing with rugged, skilled Tkachuk.
"He was hurt at the time, and I know he was pretty upset at losing his buddies," Tkachuk recalled.
"But, after a couple of weeks, I got him out of his shell," Tkachuk recalled with a laugh. "He and I did everything together."
During the playoffs this past spring, Tkachuk was shown on the scoreboard at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis sporting a Blues jersey, and the crowd responded enthusiastically. When he turned to reveal he was wearing No. 38 with Demitra's name stitched across the shoulders, the crowd went crazy.
"It was nice," Tkachuk said. "He'll never be forgotten in my mind."
Even now, Tkachuk finds it hard to believe the loss.
"Pavol left a wife and two children behind. I can't even imagine how difficult it is for them," he said.
When we reach Zdeno Chara, Demitra's former national team teammate and neighbor in Trencin in western Slovakia, Chara is sitting on his patio with his 3-year-old daughter.
The tiny country that forged its independence in 1992 is intensely proud of its athletes and especially of hockey players who have made a name for themselves and thus for the country in the NHL.
"Obviously, Pavol's one of those guys that did all of that," Chara said. "A tremendous hockey player and a great person.
"He was really a fun guy. That's why he is so missed."
Chara was the captain of the Slovak team at the Vancouver Games, a tournament that saw Demitra play perhaps his greatest hockey.
"He was our best player," Chara said.
Demitra would score a picture-perfect shootout goal against the Russians in the preliminary round and would play a pivotal role in Slovakia's upset win over the defending gold medalists from Sweden. Demitra would then come within a few inches of tying Canada in the dying moments of the semifinal game.
"That's one of the best times of his career that I saw him play," Chara said.
The Boston Bruins' captain acknowledged that the anniversary reminds everyone in the hockey world of something they would rather not deal with.
"It's something we do want to forget, but we don't want to forget," he said. "We want to remember Pavol as we all did. It's nice that the people are still talking about him."