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Hartnett: Reflections On Former NHL Stars Taken In Russian Air Disaster

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(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

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By Sean Hartnett
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The hockey world is a small, but far-reaching community.

News of the horrific Russian air disaster that claimed the lives of 43 people including the players and staff of KHL club Lokomotiv Yaroslav has deeply impacted the worldwide hockey community.

It’s a community that stretches into the metro New York NHL market.  Many of those lost in the crash had strong ties to the Rangers, Devils and Islanders organizations.

Last season, I had the good fortune of traveling to various NHL arenas to interview some of the bigger names around the league.  Everyone says that hockey players share a genuine bond with one another, but you don’t really understand it fully until you’re inside the walls of a locker room.  Images shown on television don’t always paint an adequate picture of just how much these ‘band of brothers’ care about each other.

There is a genuine camaraderie from the team captains, down to the kids just beginning to cut their teeth in league.  It goes even beyond the playing roster as many teams treat their media staff as if they’re one of the guys.

While hanging out in their visiting locker room at the Prudential Center, I couldn’t keep a straight face while trying to do an interview as one of the more colorful players on the Minnesota Wild was peppering a member of their PR staff with constant bird calls.

The two-way relationship between players and the media in hockey is uncommon and not always found in other sports where players are described as distant and sometimes unapproachable in their dealings with the media.

Mike Sundheim, longtime PR man for the Carolina Hurricanes shared a unique story on former New York Islander Josef Vasicek who was sadly lost in the disaster.  The experience sums up the rare mutual respect between players and the media that can be found inside the hockey world.

“My personal connection with Joe began with a simple t-shirt exchange.  In Kitchener, he was wearing a shirt with the logo of the beer produced in his Czech Republic hometown: Rebel.  I made a passing comment one day about liking the shirt, and the next thing I knew he was handing it to me a few days later, washed and folded.  I returned the favor a few days later, giving him a t-shirt with the logo of my recent alma mater,” Sundheim told the Hurricanes’ official website.  The rest of the story can see viewed here.

When I heard the sobering news this morning, my thoughts turned to just how many people inside hockey are affected by a tragedy of this magnitude.  Along with former teammates, trainers, coaches, media members and club personnel interact with the playing roster on a daily basis.

While preparing for an interview outside the Dallas Stars’ visiting locker room at the Wells Fargo Center, I was speaking with a few of the Dallas beat reporters to see which players were the most approachable and likely to give entertaining quotes.

I hadn’t been asked to cover the Stars previously, and was unaware of who were the best guys to chat with.  Unanimously, the beat writers suggested Karlis Skrastins was the guy to speak with, but joked that I would have trouble understanding his thick Latvian accent.

Although the topic I was covering did not involve Skrastins, I made sure to say hello to Karlis to see for myself what the Dallas writers were talking about.  As I made my way toward the player I was interviewing, I passed by Karlis and spoke with him briefly.  He struck me the exact way as everyone told me he would — a genuinely nice guy.  I later observed how well-liked he was by his teammates as they all surrounded him to hang out before the game.

The tributes for Skrastins are pouring in — and rightfully so because everyone loved the aptly nicknamed ‘Ironman’ who set the record of 495 consecutive games played by an NHL defensemen.

His head coach for both of seasons in Dallas, Marc Crawford shared his reaction via Twitter, “Karlis Skrastins 1 of the most Popular, Unselfish players ever in the NHL. Words can’t describe his Quality. Thoughts, +Prayers for all KHL.”

Newest New York Rangers star Brad Richards was a teammate of Skrastins in Dallas and will surely have wonderful things to say about Karlis as the tributes continue to roll in.  It’s been a day in which all three hockey locals, the Rangers, Devils and Islanders have been affected by the tragedy.

One victim was Karel Rachunek, who was set to captain Lokomotiv Yaroslav in the upcoming season.  Rachunek spent two seasons with the Rangers and another with the Devils before traveling to Russia to play in the KHL.  Alexander Vasyunov also perished in the disaster.  Vasyunov broke into the NHL last season with the Devils before returning to play for Lokomotiv this summer.

Devils’ President/General Manager Lou Lamoriello shared his memories of those he knew who were lost in the disaster in an official statement on the team’s official website.

“The New Jersey Devils lost two of the family through the crash.  I had the pleasure of knowing several members of the team, plus the entire coaching staff.  In particular, Alexander Vasyunov, who played for us last season, was an outstanding young man and a gifted athlete.  Captain Karel Rachunek skated for us in 2007-08.  Both were members of the Devils’ family.  On behalf of the entire Devils’ organization, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of the entire Lokomotiv club,” Lamoriello reflected.

I was the Prudential Center when Vasyunov scored his first career NHL goal against the Edmonton Oilers on November 12, 2010.  It was a thrilling game that Devils won in overtime thanks to an Ilya Kovalchuk power-play goal, but the image of Vasyunov scoring his lone career NHL goal will probably stick more prominently in my memory as the years go on.

Alexander Karpovtsev played for the Rangers in six of his twelve years in the NHL.  He was an assistant coach for Lokomotiv, and another whose life was claimed in the disaster.  Along with fellow Russians Alexei Kovalev, Sergei Zubov and Sergei Nemchinov, Karpovtsev was part of the Rangers’ storied team that lifted the Stanley Cup in 1994.  Many of my close friends who are lifelong Ranger fanatics have great memories of Karpovtsev’s career.

Current Ranger Artem Anisimov played for Lokomotiv before his journey into the NHL.  He spoke to Jesse Spector of the New York Daily News about the many people he knew that tragically perished in the crash.  The news stuck a deep chord inside Anisimov who spent many years of his life perfecting his game at Lokomotiv’s academy.

“I know these people, half the team,” Anisimov said. “Young guys, we’ve grown up together, you know?  In Russia, they have school – it’s one organization, Yaroslavl.  You go to the hockey school growing up, play with the second team and then you grow up and play with the first team, so a bunch of young guys I know, and the medical staff, all the staff, I know too.  So sad.”

Right now, my thoughts and prayers are with everyone who lost someone they loved in the disaster.  As I’m writing this, there is a vigil being held in the streets of Yarovlavl.  The people gathered are dressed in Lokomotiv jerseys and holding up flags and scarves in memory of those who have passed on.

My hope is that the pain that the entire hockey world is feeling today will eventually give way to warm memories of those lost in the disaster.

Hockey fans, what are your memories of those lost in the Russian Air Disaster?  Share your stories and tributes below.  You can send your tweets to @HartyLFC.

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