Pavol Demitra, Nov 29, 1974 - Sept. 7, 2011

One of the great St. Louis Blues is gone, but not forgotten. Pavol Demitra, former Blues center Igor Korolev, Ruslan Salei, and several other notable hockey players tragically lost their lives in a plane crash 150 miles from Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, September 7, 2011.

An estimated 43 of 45 people were killed in a Yak-42 airplane when it crashed into the Volga River banks, just outside of Moscow. En route to its season opener in Belarus to play the Dinamo Minsk, Demitra’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) team, Lokomotiv (coached by former NHLer Brad McCrimmon), never made its destination.

Demitra and Salei were 36 years old, and both wore #38 for the Blues. Korolev was 41. Some of the other former NHL players who perished were Alexander Karpovtsev (41), Karlis Skrastins (37), Stefan Liv (30, a Detroit Red Wings prospect), Josef Vacinek (30), Jan Marek (31), and Karel Rachunek (32). Many more talented hockey players lost their lives, and the whole hockey world is shattered today.

Former Los Angeles Kings star, and Demitra teammate, Luc Robitaille said in The LA Times that Pavol was “just a fun guy to be around.”  Robitaille said Pavol was “just happy to play hockey.  He loved the game – that’s why he was still playing.”

In the team’s official statement, Blues GM and President John Davidson said, “On behalf of the St. Louis Blues, we are deeply saddened by the tragedy that took place today in Russia involving the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club. The entire hockey community has been affected by this news and our most heart-felt condolences go out to the families of those who perished.

“The St. Louis Blues have lost two members of our family, Pavol Demitra and Igor Korolev, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families as well. Pavol and Igor were both incredibly passionate and dedicated players and their influence in St. Louis was not only felt on the ice, but throughout the community.”

Blues great Keith Tkachuk is “beyond devastated” by the passing of two friends in the crash, Demitra and McCrimmon. Tkachuk said, “Brad was my teammate in Phoenix and later coached me in Atlanta and was truly a wonderful man who will be greatly missed.  Pav was like a brother to me and I cannot believe that he is no longer with us.

“This is a terrible day for the hockey fraternity. My family’s thoughts and prayers are with their families during this difficult time.”

We can look back at the great memories we share of Demitra and Korolev. If you want to comment on their loss, below, please do. It’s only right that we share our memories of them. Here’s what I remember about them.

Korolev was part of the Blues’ “Russian Connection” line in 1992-93, which included Vitali Prokhorov and Vitali Karamnov. While the latter two returned to Russia after the experiment, Korolev had a strong NHL career (119 goals, 346 points in 795 games) until he returned home in 2004. He was a solid two-way player.

Demitra came to the Blues in a time of transition. In one of the great steals in Blues history, they traded Christer Olsson for Demitra in 1996 after Pavol held out in Ottawa. While the Brett Hull era of the Blues was coming to an end, Demitra stepped up to almost fill the scoring void that Hull left when he signed with Dallas. After a short preview in 1996-97, Demitra came back the next year to net 22 goals and 52 points in 61 games. In his 494 games with the Blues, Demitra scored 204 goals and 493 points. His tandem with center Pierre Turgeon was highly productive. The two just seemed to click, with Demitra never scoring fewer than 20 goals in any of his full seasons. Pavol won the Lady Byng Trophy in 2000, awarded to the NHL’s Most Gentlemanly Player.

I remember when the Demitra era had first begun. He loved the city and game so much that he was absolutely elated to be in the position he was – on a top line on a playoff team. In an intermission interview, he was so overwhelmed with emotion that all he kept saying was that he was “so happy, I’m so happy.” But with his Slovakian accent, it came out as “so hoppy, I’m so hoppy.” And we were “hoppy” to enjoy his play for so long.

One of the most exciting players to watch in a Blues uniform, many of us were disappointed in his exodus from St. Louis in 2004. Back then, Blues fans (including this author) were spoiled by the long string of playoff berths without the glory of a Stanley Cup. Many fans were quick to blame the “non-playoff performers”. While he wasn’t the unstoppable offensive force that was known for being in the regular season, he still performed well in the playoffs – 18 goals and 43 points in 66 playoff games. But that production, and the Blues production overall in the playoffs, just wasn’t good enough for us. Don’t we miss those days of playoff intensity? In those years of regular season futility, wouldn’t we have loved to see Pavol “hoppy” in St. Louis again? The Blues have made the playoffs only once since he left.

We should celebrate the great memories that Pavol Demitra and Igor Korolev gave us. I’ll never forget them. St. Louis will never forget them. And we’ll never see anyone “hoppier” than Pavol was when he was a Blue.

Demitra had two young children, Zara and Lucas, and a wife named Maja. Korolev is survived by two children and his wife, Vera. The hearts of St. Louis Blues fans everywhere go out to them and the families of those lost.

Blues Celebrate a Demitra Goal (UPI Photo/Bill Greenblatt)