Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

Also find Russo on Facebook.

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Hockey's Summer of Sorrow; Pavol Demitra killed in plane crash

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Wild off-season news Updated: September 7, 2011 - 2:06 PM

Wild statement added:

First Derek Boogaard, who died in May after a toxic mix of alcohol and painkillers. In today's paper, his brother, Ryan, told of the sad tale of how Derek got hooked on painkillers and how Derek's death should be an eye-opener for the NHL. You can read that here.

Then, Rick Rypien. Then, just last week, Wade Belak.

 

 

Today, the charter plane carrying the Kontinental Hockey League team, Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, to their first game in Minsk crashed, killing almost everybody on board, including former Wild player Pavol Demitra. Former Red Wings assistant and NHL defenseman Brad McCrimmon was head coach, and Alex Karpovtsev was reportedly an assistant. Former NHLers Ruslan Salei, Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek, Jan Marek and Karlis Skrastins were also reportedly on the plane.

I just got off the phone with agent Matt Keator, who was with Demitra in Riga, Latvia, three weeks ago and confirmed to me that Demitra sadly was killed: "I just want everybody to know what kind of infectious energy he has, what a wonderful person he was. People were drawn to Demo."

KHL statement: “We are only beginning to understand the impact of this tragedy affecting the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl club and the international hockey community. First and foremost, our condolences go out to the families and friends of the players, coaches and staff lost in today’s tragedy. “We know that there are many in the KHL family who will be grieving with us. As the investigation of this tragedy progresses we will work closely with investigators, government officials, club executives and the Yaroslavl community. We are working to find an appropriate way to honor this club and begin the healing process from the deep loss so many of us feel today. “We are aware that many of you have questions. This tragedy remains our primary focus. We ask for patience as we find an appropriate way to proceed with the 2011/2012 season. We will continue to communicate our plans as they take shape.”

The Minnesota Wild organization joins the rest of the hockey world in mourning the tragedy involving the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club. Pavol Demitra was a valuable member of our team for two seasons and helped the Wild claim its first-ever Northwest Division title in 2008. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Demitra family as well as all of the families that lost loved ones today.

Demitra was the first big trade by former Wild GM Doug Risebrough after the lockout. He acquired Marian Gaborik's best friend for Patrick O'Sullivan and a first-round pick that he acquired in the Dwayne Roloson trade to Edmonton.

That trade is when the Wild first signified it was going from a $21 million payroll to a team willing to spend like the big boys.

Demitra always had that mischievous grin, was always one to jokingly quarrel back and forth. My favorite story I did on Demitra was one of about six I did on he and Gaborik. The story is below. It really shows Demitra's sense of humor and his relationship with Gaborik, who has got to be devastated. Remember, Boogaard was one of Gaborik's best friends, too, and they lived a block from each other in Manhattan.

Another fun Gaborik/Demitra story was before training camp in 2006. I took Demitra, Gaborik and Branko Radivojevic to lunch for an interview at D'Amico and Sons in Uptown. The laughs were plentiful.

 

 

My favorite Demitra experience. In 2008 after the Wild won the division, I predicted Colorado in Six. I walked into the locker room in suburban Denver, and Demitra lit into me. How do you pick against us? You're our writer. Yada, yada. It was a funny yet uncomfortable moment as I tried to explain I'm an impartial writer.

Well, Colorado won in six. Every time I saw Demo since, I'd say hi by saying, "Colorado in Six." Even in the Olympics in 2010, "Colorado in Six." Demitra would always go, "I know, I know. You were right."

I'll miss those moments with the guy.

Twitter reactions from across NHL:

Brent Burns: Know demo was on team, just an awesome guy to play with and was huge in his native country for hockey, prayers go out to his family...Still hoping to hear he wasn't there, haven't heard yet... Just a crazy crazy summer, def makes you chase kids down for a kiss after that

Logan Couture: Heartbreaking summer for hockey. Thoughts to everyone affected by these terrible, sad events.

Wes Walz: Heart is broken this morning on the new of KHL team plane crash. No words too discribe how this feels....in shock

Darcy Kuemper: Keep the players and familys involved in the Russian plane crash in your thoughts and prayers. Sad day

Tom Chorske: I played w/ Demitra in OTT and for Brad McCrimmon in Calgary...saw Brad at @MinnesotaWild gm last season. Feeling awful rt now...

Brent Sopel: In shock. Prayers out to all of the KHL families.

Ryan Whitney: Terrible news of the plane crash carrying an entire KHL team. Thoughts and prayers go out to all families involved.

Here's that Demitra-Gaborik story where you can really see their friendship:

Published April 11, 2007

By Michael Russo

Anaheim, Calif.

Robyn Regehr doesn't suffer from motion sickness, and that's a good thing, because the Calgary defenseman wasn't expecting to spin up and down the ice like a dreidel when the Flames arrived in Minnesota last month.
Regehr was given the unenviable assignment of defending Pavol Demitra and Marian Gaborik, and the Wild wizards spent the night making Regehr twist and turn as he tried to guard against what's been dubbed the "Lob Pass."
You know, the pass where Gaborik takes off the second Demitra gets the puck. Demitra then lobs the puck up ice in the hope of Gaborik catching up on either a breakaway or a one-on-one situation with a very vulnerable, very dizzy defenseman.
You can bet the Anaheim Ducks, the Wild's opponent when the first round of the NHL playoffs opens tonight, have been well-schooled about the lob pass. In fact, you can be certain the Honda Center is well stocked with Dramamine.
"It's something that doesn't happen against any other teams," said Regehr, who looked like a cornerback who lost sight of the football. "It's a total adventure when a guy like Gaborik, with all that speed, is skating forward and you're skating backward. And even if you're with him, one bad bounce, next thing you know he has the puck in the slot and you're in trouble."
And that's just the way Demitra likes it.
"It's a good play, because at least you're forcing the defense to always be nervous about it," Demitra said. "I'd be nervous if I had to challenge the fastest guy in the league. When Gabby gets going, it's almost impossible to stop him."
Gaborik nods, proudly. Demitra, sensing this, adds, "When we play with [Atlanta Thrashers superstar Marian] Hossa [in international competition], I lob it and let Gabby and Hossa fight for the puck and the breakaway.
"I do it just to amuse myself."
Best friends, on and off the ice
Spend any time with Gaborik, 25, and Demitra, 32, and it's easy to see why they're one of the NHL's most electrifying dynamic duos, why sometimes they seem to read each other's mind.
"Because we only use one brain - mine," Demitra said, straight-faced.
Gaborik, laughing hysterically, shot back, "Yeah, we use the bald one."
Seemingly attached at the hip - "On the road we spend 24 hours a day together," Demitra says - the Slovak sidekicks live to cut each other up.
That was evident during last week's Star Tribune photo shoot, when Demitra was impatiently ready to strike a pose while Gaborik stared endlessly into a mirror fixing his hair.
"Gabby, come on!" Demitra screamed. "You're still going to be ugly."
"And you still won't have any hair," Gaborik retorted.
Asked how much they love picking on each other, Gaborik smiled ear-to-ear.
"Lots of different jokes," Gaborik said. "We pick on each other in all kinds of areas. Sometimes it gets too much though, too personal with stuff, and we get mad. I always tell him he's bald and `Big [Butt],' and he's always calling me ugly and how he's so good-looking."
"We're very close. We know everything about each other," Demitra added, before interrupting himself. "You should listen to us on the bench. We yell at each other a lot. If we don't get the puck when we want it, we let each other know when somebody's unhappy. That's how it's supposed to be."
"Yeah," Gaborik said, "it's good to be honest. I think every duo out there does the same thing, or you can't have success."
Gaborik often goes to Demitra's home to play with his son, Lucas.
"I don't want to see his ugly face every day," Demitra said. "We see each other enough at the rink, but my boy loves him. He likes when Gabby brings him presents. The first gift Gabby got him was a [Wild] Zamboni. Every time I ask him who gave it to him, he goes, `Gabby.'-"
"That kid's always running around," Gaborik said. "He's really, really got a lot of energy, boy. Looks like his father."
"I hope not," Demitra said. "I hope he looks like my wife [Maria]."
A positive influence
It's easy to see what Demitra and Gaborik mean to each other on the ice. They combined for 40 goals and 87 points since Jan. 11, and teammates joke how their statistics would be gaudier if they all wore No. 10.
But General Manager Doug Risebrough has noticed a significant difference in Gaborik's maturity since he traded for Demitra last summer.
"Demitra's kind of got that laid-back, analyze-everything demeanor," Risebrough said. "There's a real high respect factor there with Marian to Pavol. I'm sure it has a lot do with the younger-to-older thing, but Pavol influences Marian in a lot of positive ways, whether it's calming him down, whether it's jacking him up.
"If you think about it, Gabby's never had somebody in the room willing to keep him honest."
Gaborik agrees, saying, "I've learned a lot this year. To be around one of my best friends, a guy who's been around and has a lot of experience and has played so good in the NHL, it's been a good thing."
`One plus one equals three'
Even though Gaborik and Demitra dominated at the 2006 Olympics and for the elite Slovakian team Trencin during the NHL's lockout of 2004-05, some skeptics wondered how successful they'd be in the NHL. Often, linemates can be like oil and water even when they have complementary parts.
"Pavol Demitra's a good player, but if you want him to be a solo player, he's not going to be," said Craig Button, a Toronto Maple Leafs. "You have to get him the right linemate. And we've seen now, you put him with a guy like Marian, Pavol doesn't just jump from here to here. It's exponential.
"They're both smart players, both really good with the puck, both really good skaters, where Pavol maneuvers and Marian can really take off. And the way Pavol holds the puck and Marian gets open for him, that's how one plus one equals three."
As good as Demitra and Gaborik have been, Demitra says the two still are waiting for that one breakout game. He's hoping that'll come in the playoffs, although that's an awfully tall task against the hard-hitting Ducks.
"I feel we can still play better," said Demitra, who has scored 20 goals in nine consecutive seasons. "We're still looking for that one huge game where we can dominate and score four or five goals. Some games, we get 10 chances and score only one or two goals. But I know we can explode.
"There are a lot of expectations on us in the playoffs. Everybody wants to see if we can play good."
Retired NHL veteran Ray Ferraro, a teammate of Demitra's in St. Louis, thinks it will happen.
"I don't think the intensity of the playoffs will bother them," Ferraro said. "They've given the Wild a dimension they haven't had in the past, and that's the ability to score off the rush. Demitra's a very good passer with a terrific shot and Gaborik's a legit gamebreaker, and the defense has to respect that.
"These guys clearly love playing with each other. As soon as one guy gets the puck, you know he's looking for the other guy. And it's pretty easy to have a feel where Gaborik is. Look straight ahead. I think they'll be dangerous for Anaheim."
Gaborik sure is ready.
"Sometimes I think about what it would be like to bring a Stanley Cup back home and I imagine that," Gaborik said, smiling. "It would be a lot of fun, all the people around, the celebrations, just holding the Cup, and having a ring. I try to envision that sometimes. I really hope it comes true."

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