Former Wild player Pavol Demitra was one of 43 killed in the crash of a plane carrying a Russian hockey team, adding to a sad summer in the NHL.
Pavol Demitra's two children used to spend time playing after games in the Wild locker room, where their chrome-headed father with the most mischievous grin was as old-school a hockey player as they got.
His shoulder pads were a decade old, his skates had dull blades, his stick was wooden.
Memories like that are all that's left for his former teammates and fans. The 36-year-old Slovakian national hero died with 42 others when a plane carrying his Russian hockey team crashed Wednesday.
"I'm almost kind of still in shock," said Wes Walz, Demitra's former Wild linemate. "I've never heard of a whole team going down. I don't really have another word. It's amazing.
"Demo was like the Wayne Gretzky of Slovakia. This is one of the best players ever to play from that country."
A tragic summer for hockey -- NHL players Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak have died in the offseason -- took an unfathomable turn with the crash in central Russia. The plane carried players and coaches from Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, a Kontinental Hockey League team heading to Minsk, Belarus, for the season opener.
Marian Gaborik, the former Wild star who was Demitra's bosom buddy for two years with Minnesota, was shaken by the news, leaving the New York Rangers' practice facility quickly Wednesday morning. Late in the afternoon, Gaborik tweeted, "Demo, u will always b in my heart. U were one of my best friends on and off the ice. U will be greatly missed by all of us."
"Pav was like a brother to me, and I cannot believe that he is no longer with us," former St. Louis Blues linemate Keith Tkachuk said. "This is a terrible day for the hockey fraternity."
Also killed in the crash were former NHLers Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins, Josef Vasicek and Karel Rachunek, as well as first-year coach Brad McCrimmon, a longtime NHL defenseman who until last season was an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings.
"The hockey world mourns yet again. Please God, we can't take much more," Rangers forward Brandon Prust wrote on his Twitter account.
The cause of the crash of the Yak-42 private aircraft wasn't immediately known, but the plane reportedly couldn't gain altitude shortly after takeoff and slammed into the Volga River near the airport at Yaroslavl, a city about 150 miles northeast of Moscow. All but one player -- Alexander Galimov -- was killed. Galimov, 26, reportedly has burns across more than 80 percent of his body and is in critical condition.
Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, called it the "darkest day in the history of the sport."
Added NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman: "Though it occurred thousands of miles away from our home arenas, this tragedy represents a catastrophic loss to the hockey world -- including the NHL family, which lost so many fathers, sons, teammates and friends who at one time excelled in our league."
A love for the game
After spending two years with the Vancouver Canucks, Demitra could have retired. He had made plenty of money, but he loved playing the game too much. So last season, he began playing in the KHL.
"He was having a lot of fun playing over there and finishing off his career before he retired in the next year or two," agent Matt Keator said. "People were drawn to Demo. He was a great friend and teammate everywhere he went. He loved the game and loved to play. He was all about having fun."
Demitra was highly decorated in his native Slovakia, playing in multiple tournaments before announcing his retirement from international competition in May.
"Demo was loved by all his Slovakian counterparts, especially the younger guys that watched him play growing up in his homeland," Walz said. "He'd often be talking to another Slovakian kid before a morning skate. You could just see in the kids' eyes how they looked up to Demo almost like a father figure."
He was a highly skilled playmaker who was considered one of the biggest draft steals in NHL history. Selected 227th overall in the ninth round of the 1993 draft by Ottawa, Demitra went on to score 304 goals and 768 points in parts of 16 seasons with Ottawa, St. Louis, Los Angeles, the Wild and Vancouver.
Immediate impact with Wild
The Wild acquired Demitra at the 2006 draft from the Kings for Patrick O'Sullivan and a first-round pick -- a trade that signified the Wild was trying to elevate itself to playoff contender.
Those two years with Demitra -- 2006-07 and 2007-08 -- were indeed the last time the Wild made the playoffs, claiming its only division crown in 2008.
A big reason the Wild acquired Demitra was to entice Gaborik, who was a year from unrestricted free agency, to re-sign. It worked; he re-upped for three years after pressure from Demitra.
The two were magic when healthy, with Demitra often looking for his comrade with saucer passes and lobs up the center of the ice. Gaborik's 42-goal season in 2007-08 is a Wild record.
Demitra's death comes less than four months after Boogaard, one of Gaborik's closest friends with the Wild and Rangers, also died.
"I exchanged text messages with Gabby, and I just told him, 'Sorry about everything.' It's been a tough grind for him," Walz said. "He just said he appreciated it. Like, what do you say? What do you do?
"He was so close with Demo and Boogey. This is two very big hits. Losing two friends like this can be devastating. I hope he has a good support group around him to get him through this, but if I know Marian, he'll be able to get through this. I'm sure he'll have an unbelievable year for Demo."
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