Saturday, September 10, 2011

Far Away But Close By

During an earlier time, news that an airplane carrying a Russian professional hockey team crashed shortly after takeoff, killing 43 of 45 passengers, simply would be added to the list of such tragedies. With the internationalization of the game, during the past season I saw three members of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) play in Chicago and south Florida, as well as their newly appointed head coach serving as an NHL assistant coach. Ironically, only one was Russian. I’ve also seen another player in 2008 and two assistant coaches play for the Blackhawks.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

The fall of the Soviet Union brought players from Russia and Eastern Europe to the NHL in increasing numbers during the 1990s. For the 2000-2001 season, 87 Russians were playing fulltime in the world’s premier hockey league. The 24-team KHL, formed in 2008-2009 after the Russian Super League disbanded, quickly became the second strongest professional hockey league. Numerous circumstances, including financial incentives by the KHL, reduced the number of Russian players in the NHL to 27 (plus 10 from former Soviet Socialist Republics) in the 2009-2010 season.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was formed in 1949 and came from the Super League with 19 other teams for the inaugural KHL season. It finished third in the Western Conference in 2008-2009 but advanced to the finals before losing in seven games to Ak Bars Kazan. Lokomotiv was defeated in the Western Conference finals during the last two seasons and had made a number of roster changes for the start of the 2011-2012 season.

Here are those I’ve seen:

Brad McCrimmon. The long-time NHL defenseman played alongside some of the game's best, including Ray Borque, Paul Coffey, Chris Pronger and Nicklas Lidstrom. McCrimmon, 52, spent the last three seasons as an assistant coach with the Red Wings, where Marisa and I saw him behind the bench during the February 18, 2011, game vs. the Florida Panthers at the BankAtlantic Arena. He was about to coach his first regular-season KHL game.

Asst. Coach Brad McCrimmon (left) behind Ruslan Salei (#24), Feb. 2011

Ruslan Salei. The 36-year-old Belarusian also had a long NHL career, finishing a final season with the Red Wings in 2011. His slashing penalty at 19:38 of the 2nd period led to the Panthers’ second goal, 5 seconds later. He was on the ice for the Wings’ winning goal at 12:28 of the final period. Salei played one season and part of another with the Panthers before being traded to the Colorado Avalanche for Karlis Skranstins in February 2008.

Ruslan Salei celebrates with teammates after Todd Bertuzzi's winning goal, Feb. 2011

Karlis Skranstins. I saw the Latvian defenseman play for two teams in one season and a third team last year. Skranstins, 37, played his first full NHL season with Nashville in 1999-2000 before being traded to the Avalanche four years later. He was with the Avs at the United Center for a game vs. the Blackhawks, shortly before being traded to the Panthers for Ruslan Salei. I attended a Panthers game vs. the New York Islanders less than two weeks after the trade. His final two NHL seasons were with the Dallas Stars, which included a game witnessed from the first row of the United Center in December 2010.

Karlis Skranstin (#37) skates behind Jonathan Toews, Dec. 2010

Alexander Vasyunov. The young Russian left-winger played 18 games in his only NHL season with the New Jersey Devils, including 4:16 in a December 2010 victory over the Blackhawks. Only 23 years old, he played with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl before joining the Devils’ American Hockey League team in 2008.

Josef Vasicek. His seven-year NHL career was almost over when he played for the New York Islanders vs. the Panthers in March 2008. The Czech center, 30, served two stints with the Carolina Hurricanes.

The most noted player on the team, Pavol Demitra, was a member of the Vancouver Canucks when I saw the team play the Hawks and Panthers during the 2009-2010 season but he sat out both games with injuries. The Czech center, 36, broke in with the St. Louis Blues in 1993. He had three 30+ goal seasons with the Blues.

Alexander Karpotsev and Igor Kovolev served as assistant coaches for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Karpotsev played parts of four seasons in the early 2000s with the Blackhawks. His trade that sent Brian McCabe to Toronto in 2000 was one of the worst in team history, just behind the Esposito-Hodge-Stanfield trade to Boston. McCabe is still active in the NHL, having been the Panthers’ captain last season until being shipped off to the New York Rangers before the trade deadline. Karpotsev's final season in the NHL was a short one, 6 games with the Panthers in 2005.

Brian McCabe (#24) skates off the ice after Dennis Wideman's goal coming 5 seconds
after a slashing penalty to Ruslan Salei, Feb. 2011

Although this may seem harsh, Hawks announcer Pat Foley was spot on with his assessment of Karpotsev after a trade to the Islanders for a 5th-round pick.

Kovolev also had a disappointing career with the Hawks, having spent parts of two seasons in the minors six years after joining the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1997. The left-winger registered only 9 goals and 20 assists in 82 games in his first season with the Hawks. Kovolev returned to Russia and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl for the 2004-2005 season, retiring as a player after the 2009-2010 season.

The NHL was already experiencing the tragic deaths of three players during the off season, two by suicide and one by accidental drug-and-alcohol overdose, when the news of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crash was announced. Because professional hockey has expanded far from the days when almost all of the pros were Canadian, a plane crash in Russia has wide-ranging and, of course, sad repercussions.

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