Sept. 7, 2011
by Michael Zuidema - Grand Rapids Press
GRAND RAPIDS -- Bob Kaser, vice president of community relations and broadcasting for the Grand Rapids Griffins, was in a staff meeting Wednesday morning when team owner Dan DeVos approached and handed him a news report.
Kaser was stunned when he read that three former Griffins and a former Detroit Red Wings coach and player were among 43 people killed when a plane carrying their Russian hockey team crashed moments after takeoff near Yaroslavl, about 150 miles northeast of Moscow.
"It's like, 'Oh my God, are you kidding me?' How awful," Kaser said. "It's just unsettling."
Former Griffins Pavol Demitra, Karel Rachunek and Stefan Liv were among those who died. The trio played for Locomotiv of the Kontinental Hockey League, which was coached by former Detroit assistant Brad McCrimmon, who left the Red Wings in May and also was one of the confirmed fatalities.
Also killed was defenseman Ruslan Salei, who played for the Red Wings last season.
"It takes the air out of your stomach when you hear something like that, especially when you know some of the people who were on that plane," said Bob McNamara, the Griffins' general manager for 15 years before he stepped down this summer.
"It's a sad thing. Obviously, my thoughts and prayers go out to the families."
Griffins senior director of public relations Randy Cleves said the organization is working on plans to remember the players this season.
"We will certainly do something appropriate to honor their memories," Cleves said.
"Obviously, it's very somber and an unspeakably sad day for us, and for hockey in general. It's just something you never expect and it's been very hard to digest."
DeVos issued the following statement:
"The entire Grand Rapids Griffins organization is deeply saddened today by the horrible plane crash in Russia. The loss of three former Griffins, two former Red Wings, their Yaroslavl Lokomotiv teammates and the other victims is unspeakably painful. Pavol Demitra, Karel Rachunek and Stefan Liv were tremendous individuals and great ambassadors during their time with us, while many in the Griffins family also knew Brad McCrimmon and Ruslan Salei well.
"We mourn their passing with the rest of the hockey community, and our thoughts and prayers are with the friends and families of all the victims of this tragedy."
Brad Thompson, the Griffins' equipment manager since 1997, heard the news while skating at Griff's IceHouse with current players Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson. The first thing Thompson thought of was Liv's son Herman, who was born while he played in Grand Rapids, and McCrimmon's son Liam, who he got to know during the playoffs last spring.
"It's sad, just to think I knew him a few years ago and now he's dead," Thompson said. "I don't know. I'm shocked. I'm just rattled. You get to know these guys after so many years, you follow them."
Demitra, 36, was the first of what is now 117 former Griffins to reach the NHL. The Slovakia native only appeared in 42 games during Grand Rapids' inaugural 1996-97 season, but he had 50 points (20 goals, 30 assists) before he was snatched up by the St. Louis Blues.
In 847 career NHL games with St. Louis, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Vancouver, the three-time all-star had 304 goals and 464 assists.
"He's one of the best players to ever wear a Griffins uniform, really one of the first bonafide stars," McNamara said. "We were able to acquire him midway through our first season and that kind of springboarded his career. Then he was signed by St. Louis and we never saw him again. He never looked back.
"He was a fun-loving guy, just loved to play hockey, loved the sport. It was a pleasure to have him."
Rachunek, 32, also spent just one season with the Griffins, making his North American hockey debut in 1999-2000. The defenseman had 26 points (six goals, 20 assists) in 62 games and helped Grand Rapids reach the International Hockey League Turner Cup finals, where it lost in six games to Chicago.
He later went on to play in 371 NHL games for Ottawa, New Jersey and the New York Rangers, and had 22 goals and 118 assists. He also found success playing in Russia, and was listed as Locomotiv's captain heading into this season.
"The thing I remember about him is he came to us from the Czech Republic and couldn't speak a word of English," Cleves said. "But he worked hard at his English and worked hard at his play on the ice and was rewarded with a very solid career."
Liv, 30, joined the Griffins in 2006-07 after winning a gold medal with Sweden at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. The goaltender won 15 games with Grand Rapids before returning to the Swedish Elite League after the season.
"He worked real hard. He was somewhat of a quiet guy, but a real good teammate," McNamara said. "I think he was a little bit homesick. I think that's one of the reasons why he only stayed for a year, but he was a real nice kid, and I think a strong goaltending talent."
Kaser, who has been the team's play-by-play announcer since 2000, said the organization was proud to say the trio played in Grand Rapids.
"It just makes you appreciate the friendships you make in life, certainly in this game, and how quickly devastating things like this can change things," Kaser said. "It's a loss to our family for sure. A big loss."
Said McNamara: "It's a tough day. When you think about these guys and their ages and where they were at in their life, for this tragedy to happen, it's rough."