NHL's darkest summer in history

Girls light candles in memory of victims of a plane crash, in downtown Yaroslavl on September 7,...

Girls light candles in memory of victims of a plane crash, in downtown Yaroslavl on September 7, 2011. The passenger plane carrying a Russian ice hockey team to a season-opening match crashed after takeoff from a provincial airport, killing 43 people and leaving two survivors in grave condition. (REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov)

Chris Stevenson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:11 AM ET

After a spectacular spring of Game 7s and Tim Thomas and duckboat parades in Beantown and one of the most memorable playoff tournaments in recent memory, the NHL is coming off the darkest, longest summer in its history.

Most NHL players have returned to the cities where they make their living now in preparation for the first day of training camp Friday and the ripples from this tragic summer will be felt everywhere across the NHL map. You would be hard pressed to find an NHL dressing room where the loss of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien or Wade Belak will not be felt.

Most of the dressing rooms across the league will have a player who has been touched by the disaster that consumed the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team given the number of ex-NHLers who lost their lives in the crash of the club's aircraft Wednesday. Many NHL players counted members of the Lokomotiv team as ex-teammates.

Death rarely intrudes upon the world of professional sports the way it did the NHL in the last few months.

It is a world filled with athletically gifted young men who live in an artificial bubble of invincibility, who given the events of the summer, have now, probably for the first time in many of their young lives, had to contemplate death in an unprecedented way.

What some players are feeling heading into training camp is summed up by Detroit Red Wings consummate star Pavel Datsyuk, who, in an interview scheduled to talk about the upcoming season with Sovetsky Sport, could talk about nothing but the Lokomotiv tragedy and what sounds like will be its enduring shroud of sadness.

"I am in a very bad state. I call my friends in Ekaterinburg, talk to them. Every time they tell me all the details of the Yaroslavl tragedy. They give new information ... It all stacks up. It puts on a lot of pressure.

"This morning right before our meeting I watched a requiem on YouTube that was organized in Minsk in remembrance of the hockey players who died. It touched me so deep how people reacted to this tragedy, with the kind of respect they remembered (those) people. It touched my soul.

"But I caught myself thinking that I still cannot believe it. I cannot accept that this actually happened. Only now I am starting to realize that you cannot bring the guys back. I don't want to believe it ... But now you have to live with it."

You have to live with it.

On this day, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we are reminded that we often turn to sports, turn to the NHL, for distraction, for some sense - however fleeting - of normalcy in the aftermath of such overwhelming loss.

Where does the game turn when the losses are afflicted upon its fabric?

They will try, but how many players won't be able to think about the poor players from Lokomotiv every time they board a plane? Flying is a way of life in the NHL and just as many NHL players will continue to find ways on a personal level to deal with the loss of friends and teammates, you find a way to cope, to reconcile, to accept.

Camps will open and there will be some relief in the salve of routine.

But these NHL camps and this NHL season will not be the same.

The events of the summer guarantee that. The NHL and the NHLPA have said they will investigate the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak with the hope if there is any link - and too many people were too quick to make assumptions - there will be a co-operative effort to find ways to expand the help and support network already available to league personnel.

Hopefully there will be more conversations among players, among teammates, among husbands and wives, parents and sons and daughters about emotional well-being. Hopefully one way we will see a change this season is people being willing to put out a hand for help and there being lots of people ready to grasp it.

On a much less significant scale, NHL training camps will open without the presence of the game's marquee player. Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said that despite encouraging progress in his slow climb out of the dark hole that is concussion, no timetable has been set for his return.

He and his doctors expect he will return at some point this season and the question will then become how close will he be to the player we knew, one of the few players that has you waking up in the morning and wondering how he did the night before if you didn't already know.

Crosby said the other day he is coping, getting better.

He has to live with it.

Life in the NHL will go on, without Boogaard, Rypien, Belak. It will go on without all those former teammates who perished in Russia.

Games will be played without Crosby, at least for a while.

The community that is the NHL will push forward, but it won't be the same.

It can't be.

The events of this summer guarantee that.

Like Datsyuk said, now you have to live with it.

This is the first segment of a five-part series.


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