From half-a-world away, Blues fans are mourning the deaths of Pavol Demitra and Igor Korolev in a tragic Lokomotiv team plane crash in Russia.
People around the organization remember Demitra as a bright and personable individual, a jovial and fan-friendly player who loved the game and the hockey lifestyle.
He was also one of the most dynamic offensive players the Blues ever deployed. That’s saying a lot, given the high number of Hall of Fame-caliber forwards who have donned the Blue Note.
In his prime Demitra could create plays with the best of them. He lacked explosive speed, but he was quick, shifty and strong on the puck. His soft hands, ice vision and sense of anticipation allowed him to turn little breaks into big plays.
Adding Demitra was arguably the best single move Mike Keenan made during his frantic reign of error as Blues GM. He moved undersized defenseman Christer Olsson for the rights to Demitra, who was playing in the IHL at the time as an unsigned restricted free agent.
Oddly, Keenan was in no hurry to bring Demitra to the NHL -– which was just one more huge mistake on his part.
Demitra and fellow Slovakians Michal Handzus and Lubos Bartecko had a brief but exciting run together. Pavol was better known for remarkable work with power forward Keith Tkachuk.
They regularly worked a signature play. Pavol would attack the right post, start around the back of the net for an apparent wraparound shot on the left side . . . and then deftly backhand the puck back toward Tkachuk at the right post for the tap in.
Demitra topped 35 goals three times during his Blues career and scored 93 points in 2002-03. Injuries plagued Demitra later in his NHL career, but he found second wind playing in Russia’s KHL. He scored 61 points in 54 games last season.
He will be remembed as one of the most skilled NHL forwards of his era.
Korolev came to St. Louis with Vitali (Big V) Karamnov and Vitali (Little V) Prokhorov as part of this team’s much-ballyhooed Russian invasion.
General manager Ron Caron drafted them sight unseen and brought them to North America. Korolev, the most talented of the three players, didn’t make a big mark here (43 points in 147 games) but had enjoyed a 795-game run in the NHL.
His signature play for the Blues was controlling the puck in the corner, passing the puck to himself again and again while waiting for a play to materialize -– and for coach Bob Berry’s heart to explode on the Blues bench.
Chronicling Korolev’s challenging transition to North American life was one of my favorite Post-Dispatch hockey stories of all time. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was visiting Igor and his family at their rented home in South St. Louis County after a season, with fellow Russian Alexei Zhamnov in town visiting them.
As I recalled, he chose his words carefully and smiled a lot -– pretty much his M.O. during his whole career.
Korolev became a solid and versatile two-way forward, enjoying 20-goal seasons for Winnipeg and Toronto. He finished his career by playing six years in Russia.
This year he crossed into coaching, serving as an assistant under head coach Brad McCrimmon’s staff with Lokomotiv. Long-time NHL assistant coach Alexander Karpovtsev was also on that staff.
Active players included familiar NHL names like Karel Rachunek, Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins, and Josef Vasicek -- good guys all.
"I cannot talk,” long-time NHL forward Alexei Kovalev told SovSport. “I had so many friends on that plane. Korolev. Karpovtsev, who I won the Stanley Cup with.”
Kovalev's response captured everybody's sentiment today. In an incredibly sad summer for hockey, it just doesn’t get any worse than this.