NHL reacts to KHL players deaths

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

NEWARK, N.J. – You want to change the subject, but you can't. Not yet.

It's Thursday afternoon at the Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils. The NHL is holding its annual player media tour. There are stars all over the place – Alex Ovechkin(notes) in his gear over here, Sidney Crosby(notes) in a suit over there – in town for interviews and photo shoots and promo tapings to hype the upcoming season.

And in a sunny atrium stands Pavel Datsyuk(notes), the Detroit Red Wings' dazzling magician, talking about death.

A plane crashed Wednesday in Datsyuk's home country. It was carrying the Kontinental Hockey League team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. It was carrying Brad McCrimmon, who had been an assistant coach for the Wings. It was carrying Ruslan Salei(notes), who had been a defenseman for the Wings. It was carrying several others Datsyuk had played with or against in Russia or the NHL.

So, Datsyuk speaks about it for a few minutes, and he says "it's hard to explain." There is an awkward pause, and you think he's had enough. So you ask about the Wings, about the return of defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), about continuing Detroit's success, about the future … about something else, anything else.

"You talk about hockey now?" Datsyuk says, not angry, just sullen. "I don't really want to talk about hockey. My mind is different now. I don't think about hockey. I have no idea what's going on in hockey."

Datsyuk sort of laughs.

"Not now," he says. "This is really hard and bad news."

Datsyuk goes on to say that he still believes Salei went ahead of the team to Minsk, that he's waiting there, that he wasn't on the plane. After all, there was some confusion about that Wednesday. They are still identifying the bodies. But Datsyuk seems to know he's in denial, that the reports now say Salei was indeed with the team. He says "it looks like not," even as he holds out hope to the end by saying, "I think it's last chance."

You ask what Datsyuk will do now.

"Pray," he says.

* * * * *

There has been so much tragedy in hockey lately, it has a tagline. It has been referred to repeatedly as "hockey's sad summer" or the "summer of sadness."

Derek Boogaard(notes). Rick Rypien(notes). Wade Belak(notes). The sport lost three tough guys in a matter of months – the last two in a couple of weeks. Boogaard, who had a problem with pain killers, mixed alcohol and oxycodone. Rypien, who suffered from depression, reportedly committed suicide. Belak, who also suffered from depression, also reportedly committed suicide, though others have said his death was accidental.

Now this.

A Yak-42 jet tried to take off from Yaroslavl, 150 miles northeast of Moscow, and crashed into the banks of the Volga River. Lokomotiv was headed to its season opener in Minsk; all but one of the 28 players aboard died, and the lone surviving player, Alexander Galimov, was in grave condition. Forty-three people died in all.

The scale makes it difficult to comprehend and do justice to each person's story. McCrimmon. Salei. Pavol Demitra(notes). Alexander Karpovtsev. Josef Vasicek. Karlis Skrastins(notes). Jan Marek. Many more.

"Lots of young guys," Datsyuk said. "Some really young."

Datsyuk was driving to an informal skate Wednesday when he spoke to a friend from Russia. He heard the news, kept going to Joe Louis Arena and sat in traffic, dazed. "Just lots of thinking about nothing good," he said. "Too much thinking, and it starts spinning and spinning."

He thought about each guy and what they used to do together, when they spoke for the last time.

St. Louis Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak(notes) found out when his girlfriend received a text message from a friend in Slovakia, asking if they had heard. They went on the web immediately to find whatever information they could. "I was shocked when I heard what happened," Halak said. "I couldn't believe it. I thought it was just a rumor, and then … it was true."

Halak knew Demitra, captain of the Slovak national team and a longtime NHLer. "It's a really big loss for our country," he said. "It's just unbelievable right now that he's gone and you'll never see him again." Halak knew Demitra was close to New York Rangers winger Marian Gaborik(notes), but he didn't call Gaborik. "What would I tell him?" he said.

What was there to say? Half a globe away from the crash site, about all anyone could do was call people overseas, check their smartphones for news updates and share memories of those who were lost. The hockey community is so tight-knit, everyone played with someone on that plane, knew someone on that plane or knew someone who did. Everyone had some kind of connection.

Florida Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell(notes) remembered when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks. They would go into Detroit, and McCrimmon would always stop to chat about a mutual friend. "He just seemed like a really nice guy," Campbell said.

Los Angeles Kings winger Dustin Brown(notes) played with Demitra for two years, sometimes on the same line. "He would get intense on the ice, get pissed off on the ice," Brown said. "After the game, he had a good perspective of life, in general. He left hockey at the rink and had a good time."

Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu(notes) shook his head. "I knew obviously Derek very good, and now this," Koivu said. "So it's a tragedy, and it's tough to put into words. A lot of players are friends. Hockey, it's a small thing. Their families and friends, that's the tough part."

* * * * *

Most of the players at the media tour heard the news from Russia while doing what professional athletes do all the time: They were getting on a plane or getting off one. Said Tampa Bay Lightning winger Steven Stamkos(notes): "Never in your wildest imagination do you even think that could happen."

Or maybe you do.

"Even getting on the plane coming here yesterday, I wasn't thrilled about jumping on a plane," Campbell said. "I think every time you feel a bump, it shakes you pretty good."

Halak was blunt. "It's always on your mind when you go on a plane," Halak said. "You never know if it's your last one or not."

Datsyuk said everyone in Russia was talking about the need to spend more money so travel would be safer. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has called for immediate changes in Russia's aviation industry. Halak doesn't care.

"It's too late right now," Halak said. "So many people died on the plane. They should have done it before, if they knew that the planes were in bad condition. They should have done it before or checked more often. I don't know. But it could happened with a new plane, with an old plane, you never know when you're safe."

The KHL already is moving on. After pushing back the opening of its season to mourn this weekend, it plans to use players from each of the league's teams to rebuild Lokomotiv.

So the NHL moves on, too. Some can't wait to change the subject.

"The hockey world is pretty devastated right now," Stamkos said. "You kind of just want to get this year over with and look on to the next, and hopefully it's better."