The hockey community lost many great men today in one of the biggest tragedies to take place in sports history. Two of these men are former Blues.
Pavol Demitra and Igor Korolev boarded a flight in Russia’s Yaroslavl airport this morning. Sadly, the flight never reached its destination of Minsk, Belarus. The Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, one of the top KHL teams, were aboard the flight that crashed near a river, killing at least 43 people and leaving one in beyond critical condition.
The St. Louis Blues released the following statements about the tragic events today:
“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.”
Korolev, drafted by the Blues in the 2nd round, 38th overall of the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, spent 12 seasons in the NHL, including his first two with the Blues. He left the NHL during the lockout and continued to play in Russia. He spent his last years playing with the Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the Russian Elite League and Mytishchi Atlant and the Lokomotiv of the KHL. After playing in his final game in 2010, Korolev stayed with Yaroslavl as a coach. He just turned 41 years old on September 6.
The left-handed Demitra was drafted by the Ottawa Senators in the 9th round, 227th overall, of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. He was acquired by the Blues in possibly one of the best trades for St. Louis in their 43-year history. Christer Olsson, the Blues’ 11th round selection, 275th overall, was dealt straight-up to the Senators for Demitra on November 17, 1996. Olsson went on to play in 25 more NHL games. Demitra played eight seasons for the Blues and 788 total NHL games after the trade. He left the Blues as their 5th all-time leading scorer with 493 points.
Demitra left the NHL after the 2009-10 season to play with the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL. He would have been 37 years old on November 29.
These are just the numbers. The men behind them are what really count.
Korolev was known as a team player that could fill in on any line. He was loved by former Toronto Maple Leafs GM Mike Smith for his determination and skill in the defensive zone. He played mostly between the second and third lines in his four seasons in Toronto, giving them the defensive depth that the Leafs needed.
When Smith moved on to Chicago, he signed Korolev to a contract with the Blackhawks. Since his time with the Maple Leafs, Korolev was widely known as a team leader and an all-around great guy to have in the locker room.
“Igor was soft-spoken, a jack-of-all-trades,” Smith said.
“He was a quiet guy, but did the dirty work a lot of people didn’t see, which was unusual for a Russian at that time (the late 1990s),” former teammate Kris King said. “This news today is sad, sad stuff. Just numbing.”
As a teenager in the 1990s and the early 2000s, Pavol Demitra holds a spot dear to my heart. Demitra is the one of the first professional hockey players that I ever had the chance to meet.
Let me share a little story with you.
Shortly after being traded to St. Louis, Demitra and two former teammates (Craig Conroy and Chris Pronger) attended a hockey card tradeshow at America’s Center in downtown St. Louis. As a young man in my early teens, I was very nervous to meet Demitra. When I arrived at his table, he seemed almost as nervous as me. As an avid hockey card collector, I had Demitra’s rookie card from one of his few games as a Senator. I stuck the card out without saying anything and he looked at me and gave me a blank stare. At that time, Demitra knew hardly any English. He just said “hi” and looked down at the card. He then began laughing and said, “Aha! Ottawa Senator!” He gladly signed the card and stuck his hand out to shake mine. I happily obliged and thanked him. He smiled back and said, “Happy to meet you. Go Blues!”
While this may not seem like anything on the outside, it meant a lot to me. He was so happy to meet fans. Even though he barely knew any English, he still tried very hard to make small talk with me.
He was also the first player that I ever saw score an overtime playoff goal in person. His goal against the Dallas Stars in game three of the 1999 NHL Semifinals is still one of the greatest hockey moments I have ever had the chance to witness.
Not only will I forever remember Korolev and Demitra as two men that I loved to watch play the sport, but two men who touched so many peoples’ lives along the way.
Please, share your thoughts on Demitra and Korolev with the people around you. In this way they will live forever.
“Say not in grief: 'He is no more', but live in thankfulness that he was.” – Hebrew proverb