We pay homage to a former LA King who we lost 10 years ago today in the tragedy of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash.
It is so hard to believe that a decade has already passed. Nevertheless, today marks the 10-year anniversary of the tragic Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash that claimed the lives of 44 passengers, including former LA Kings forward, Pavol Demitra.
While he only played one season for the Kings (2005-06), Pavol Demitra left a positive mark on the franchise during his brief stay. In his lone season in Los Angeles, the native of Dubnica, Slovakia, scored 25 goals and 37 assists for 62 points in 58 games. He would then be traded to the Minnesota Wild in June 2006 as newly appointed GM Dean Lombardi began his rebuild in the City of Angels, acquiring up-and-comer Patrick O’Sullivan and Minnesota’s first-round draft pick (used to choose Trevor Lewis) in return. Still, Demitra’s impact in Los Angeles was a memorable one.
“Pavol was a real pro,” Dave Taylor told me, the Kings’ then-GM who signed the forward in 2005. “We signed him and he played on a line with Craig Conroy and Alexander Frolov. Pavol could play in all situations and always made good decisions.”
As for yours truly who always had a penchant for cheering on the underdog, I was a fan of Demitra’s long before he suited up for the Kings.
Drafted in the ninth round (227th overall) by the Ottawa Senators in 1993, Demitra’s chances of making the NHL were slim-to-none. Nevertheless, Demitra’s hard work and perseverance led him to earn a spot with the Senators for parts of three seasons. Of course, those who dismissed the feat considering the Senators were, at the time, the league’s proverbial basement-dweller, the centerman would quiet those critics. The centerman would soon elevate his game upon his trade to the St. Louis Blues in late 1996.
With the Blues, Demitra would celebrate a career-high with 89 points in 1998-99, only to eclipse that mark in 2002-03 with 93. He even helped the Blues finish first overall in 2000 with a franchise-high 114 points.
Former LA Kings assistant, Jamie Kompon, who was the Blues’ video coach during this time, fondly remembers Demitra.
“He came [from Ottawa] as a bit of an unknown,” Kompon recalled. “We knew who he was but we didn’t know what a great player he was going to turn out to be. You marveled as he did things and then you realized that that’s how he was, the kind of player he was throughout his career. He was a wonderful hockey player but just as good a person, too.”
The current Winnipeg Jets’ associate coach continued.
“We had [Pavol], Michal Hanzus, Lubos Bartecko, and Ladislav Nagy — [the Blues players] called them ‘The Cycling Slovaks,'” Kompon added. “It was great to see and they had a special bond, but they never just kept to themselves. They were wonderful human beings but Pavol, he was a quiet person but you had to listen to him because he was a funny guy. He had these one-line jabs that [he got] that crooked grin on his face — I can see it right now — as he said something. Those are the fond memories I have of Pavol.”
Among other attributes of Demitra’s was his look, sporting a clean-shaven head and sometimes wearing a thin necklace.
In the summer of 2000, I decided to completely shave my head — something I had never done before. Already sporting a necklace that looked very similar to the one Demitra wore during games — in addition to my Demitra No. 38 Blues jersey — I took a good look in the mirror and thought I bore a resemblance to the Slovakian. Others even said it without having to ask. I took a lot of pride in resembling one of my favorite hockey players, regardless of how accurate the resemblance really was — and was only thrilled when the star player signed with the Kings in 2005.
While I would quickly become a fan of Patrick O’Sullivan and, ultimately, Trevor Lewis, I was not a fan of seeing Demitra leave Los Angeles. Even in his post-Kings career, though, Demitra remained a personal favorite.
On September 7, 2011, however, I, along with the rest of the hockey world, was devastated by the news of the Lokomotiv plane crash. While I was especially gutted knowing that Pavol Demitra was one of the victims, I was heartbroken for each of the lives lost, which included former NHL veteran Brad McCrimmon, former Anaheim Mighty Ducks defenseman Ruslan Salei, and Lokomotiv captain Karel Rachunek.
“Very sad,” a quiet Taylor remembered about learning of Demitra’s death. “Was hard to believe he was gone. Such a great person and player. Just a terrible tragedy.”
As for Kompon, he remembers the day vividly.
“I remember sitting at my desk in Los Angeles and I remember someone coming down, and [Kings goaltending coach] Bill Ranford and I were sitting there talking and they said, ‘You got to get on the internet. A plane accident with one of the Russian teams,'” he recalled in a soft-spoken tone. “And we were kind of caught off-guard. We were, like, ‘What?!’ It was early in the morning and we got on [the internet] and they started talking about who was on that team. We were trying to Google names to see who was on that team and who we knew. We found out about Pavol, then Brad McCrimmon. My heart sank right away. [Pavol had] a young family at home and all I’m thinking is, ‘This can’t be true. This is wrong. Something happened. This is not right. Like, planes don’t just crash.’ I just remember feeling– just– empty reminiscing about Pavol as a person, Pavol as a player, thinking about Michael Handzus, Lubos Bartecko, and Ladislav Nagy and all those players that were on those teams and it just– it struck me hard.”
As mentioned, there were 44 lives lost in the tragedy and not a day goes by where the collective hockey world doesn’t think of them. I echo the same sentiments but especially for Pavol Demitra, who was the living embodiment of how rewarding it was to beat the odds — both in the NHL and on the international stage, helping to turn his native Slovakia into a competitive force in the latter category. Heck, Demitra fought through the odds with the conspicuous absence of a chip on his shoulder. Having established himself as, among other things, one of hockey’s consummate gentlemen, Demitra emphasized that in 2000, winning the Lady Byng Trophy after accumulating just eight penalty minutes all season.
While I never had the pleasure of meeting him or even speaking with him, my respect for Pavol Demitra is unmatched. And, while his life was cut short, the memories, and the celebration, of Mr. Demitra will always live on.
“Pavol was an amazing person, a super human being” a somber but proud Kompon noted. “A real talented hockey player that I had the good fortune of having the opportunity to coach and get to know as a person.”
He may not have been the biggest or the flashiest of players but Pavol Demitra ran through the proverbial brick wall of skepticism to show that he belonged in the NHL while paving the way for others who were told that they couldn’t do it. So, as we look back on the 10-year anniversary of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl tragedy, we are sad but also grateful to reflect on the resonant impact left by those we lost on September 7, 2011.
That emphatically includes Pavol Demitra.
You will not be forgotten — not today, not tomorrow, not ever.