Korolev a King among Leafs

Igor Korolev, who became a Canadian citizen was close with teammate Kris King. Iornically, the name...

Igor Korolev, who became a Canadian citizen was close with teammate Kris King. Iornically, the name Korolev in Russian translates to 'king.' (QMI File)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:07 PM ET

A shaken Kris King spoke of losing his “brother” in Wednesday’s plane crash that took the lives of his ex-Maple Leafs teammates Igor Korolev and Alexander Karpovtsev.

“That is what I called Igor,” said King, now an NHL vice president of hockey operations. “He told me one day that Korolev translated to ‘king’ in Russian and that he and I and (infrequent linemate) Derek King must be brothers. He was a quiet guy, but did the dirty work a lot of people didn’t see, which was unusual for a Russian at that time (the late 1990s). This news today is sad, sad stuff. Just numbing.”

In the late ’90s, the Leafs lineup had a strong element of the Moscow Circus, five Russian-speaking players on the main roster after a training camp trade brought defenceman Karpovtsev from the New York Rangers. The names included Dmitry Yushkevich and a young Danny Markov — two hard-hitting, colourful characters on the blueline — and the swift winger Sergei Berezin.

But there was no question who their leaders were.

“Igor and Potsie were extremely well-received everywhere they went,” said Mike Smith, the Leafs’ associate general manager, who brought both to the team.

“Igor was soft-spoken, a jack-of-all-trades. Potsie was smart, he could read the b.s. situation in any dressing room and the first year he played for us (’98-99), I think he led the league in plus-minus (+38).”

Smith was a proponent of Russian-trained players from his days with the Winnipeg Jets and brought many to the Leafs. There was still some prejudice towards Eastern Bloc players in the NHL at the time, but the multinational Leafs seemed to hit it off and made the 1999 Eastern Conference final.

A prankster once altered left winger Garry Valk’s nameplate to read Igor Volkov, after he spent time on a line with Berezin and Korolev, and sat in their midst in the dressing room alongside Karpovtsev.

“I know Igor loved his wife, Vera, and their children very much, and my wife and I had some great times with them,” Kris King said.

In 2000, five years after Igor joined the Winnipeg Jets, the Korolevs became Canadian citizens. When the lights were dimmed for the anthems at the ACC, Korolev would be quietly singing O Canada in the darkness, practising as part of his swearing in ceremony. He wanted the media to quiz him on prime ministers and provincial capitals for a written component of his test.

“He helped all of our young guys with their language and cultural issues in those days,” said Pat Park, the Leafs’ director of media relations. “He was so easy to work with. And he was a great influence on Nikolai Kulemin’s career with Magnitogorsk before Nikolai came over here. Igor came to see him play so we would see him around the wives’ lounge at the ACC a few times the past year.”

King did not want to believe the reports from Russia on Wednesday that almost all the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team had perished in the crash.

“We’ve lost pretty good friends and teammates today,” King said. “It’s been a terrible summer for hockey, starting with the loss of (NHL scouting vice-president) E.J. McGuire and the three players who passed away. This has affected us all in a deep way.”

AIR TRAVEL PART OF THE GAME

The tragedy that former NHL general manager Mike Smith called “the worst fear of any pro hockey team” has befallen Yaroslavl Lokomotiv.

But air travel remains a way of life in the 30-team NHL, not just for its teams which charter thousands of kilometres every year in dangerous winter weather. Management, scouts, on-ice officials and members of the league’s hockey operations department make as many trips, hop-scotching the continent to keep the league running smoothly.

“A fan turns on his TV (for a road game) and there we are,” said ex-Leaf Dave Hannan. “They don’t realize sometimes what it takes to get there.”

Jet lag and airport delays go with the territory, but in-flight hazards can’t be anticipated.

“Every NHL player could give you at least two horror stories about flying,” coach-turned-broadcaster Harry Neale once said.

Neale recalled that, while taking off for a game in Minnesota in the 1980s, the Detroit Red Wings plane had one of its three engines fall off.

“We were at a 45-degree angle and we heard a pop,” Neale said. “We made it back to the airport safely, where we saw the engine burning on the runway. We lost the next game 10-3.”

While coaching New England in the old World Hockey Association, Neale was on another flight when the back door blew out.


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