Hockey's saddest summer

A woman places a flower on a Slovak national jersey at a memorial for the victims of a plane crash...

A woman places a flower on a Slovak national jersey at a memorial for the victims of a plane crash that killed members of the KHL's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, in Trencin, Slovakia, Sep. 7, 2011. (RADOVAN STOKLASA/Reuters)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:53 AM ET

TORONTO - This summer of hockey sorrow and devastation can’t end soon enough.

The assault has been everywhere, painful, widespread, tragic, difficult to comprehend and impossible to grasp. You ease your breath one moment, one day, one circumstance and the next moment you find yourself gasping for both air and meaning: And you can’t seem to find either.

There has never been an off-season like this one in the hockey world, with so much sadness. Not when you see people you know, names you might recognize, and people you don’t, dying in an inexplicable airplane crash halfway around the world. Not when you turn on your television and see stern faces explaining the smoke and fire in the Russian background on the news. And while it may be another land, a far-away league, the world is small and the hockey world is even smaller and somehow the reach is wide and the distress is plentiful.

At first, it was one hockey player gone in May. Another in August. Then a third at the beginning of September. That was supposed to be the end. Bad things come in threes? But now an entire team, all of them gone too soon. Fathers. Husbands. Friends. Children. Teammates. So many people touched, damaged, so many lives affected, altered forever by these series of tragedies.

“I’m speechless,” said Igor Kuperman, the Russian hockey historian and former NHL public relations man. He lost his best friend in the crash. The former Maple Leaf, Igor Korolev, is dead. He wished him a happy 41st birthday on Tuesday. “I couldn’t get him on the phone, so I sent him an email. I wish I had been able to talk to him.

“He was one of the best people I knew, a great person, a great friend. He was, how do you say it, a real soldier of the game. He cared about his team and his teammates. This is an unbelievable tragedy for so many people.”

Korolev was just beginning his coaching career. He was a first-year assistant, working with the first-year head coach, Brad McCrimmon. The salt-of-the-earth McCrimmon, who made every team he ever played for, coached for, worked with, better and tougher just by being himself. Now each of them leaves behind a wife and two children. Korolev’s wife and teenage daughters remained in Toronto when he went off to coach the Lokomotiv team.

There are stories behind all of those now gone, some of them known, many of them not, and with so many lives touched in the process. Of the nine players dead who combined to play 6,058 National Hockey League games for 22 different teams, there are ex-teammates reeling and toasting and once again trying to understand. Almost everyone in positions of authority in the hockey community offered up the same refrain Wednesday. And the refrain was no different for those whose names we are not familiar with: How unimaginably sorry they were.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman used the appropriate word. He called the plane crash a catastrophe. And a bevy of statements came before and after, from just about every team, every meaningful organization in the sport, echoing his sentiments. There has never been a hockey day like this: With players tweeting, releasing their own statements, texts flying, teams paying tribute to their former players. A non-stop campaign of good will and tears amidst all the horror.

This was early in the coaching careers of Korolev and McCrimmon, and early in the playing careers of Daniil Sobchenko and Yuri Urychev. You may not know their names, but last January they were among those celebrating, partying, being part of that dramatic Russian comeback win over Team Canada at the world junior hockey championship in Buffalo. They were so excitable, so happy, so young.

“That was the highlight of their career,” said Kuperman. He wasn’t trying to say that with any finality.

There are, in every tragedy, so many stories untold. About Ruslan Salei, maybe the best Belorussian player ever. About Pavol Demitra, the Slovakian who had one last hockey hurrah at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. About Karlis Skraskins, still the NHL ironman on defence. Each one deserving of an appropriate sendoff.

“How does this happen in 2011?” Kuperman asked of the crash. “This was one of the rich teams. This is a team that really cares about its players. It’s impossible to think the plane wasn’t good. I know the president of the team. He likes to spoil his players.”

He told the story of the 1950 plane crash in Russia, when the air force team was killed and Stalin’s son was among the dead. “That you could understand back then,” he said. “This you can’t.”


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