Sept. 9, 2011
DETROIT -- Joey MacDonald’s hockey career was at a crossroads. At age 31, he didn’t want to spend another season in the AHL. And if no NHL team came calling, the goalie’s bags were packed for Russia.
"My mind was pretty much set at the end of the season that I was going over there," MacDonald said. "I talked to a few teams and had a couple of two-year deals pretty much all figured out."
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was one of the Kontinental Hockey League clubs courting MacDonald, the one he believes he would have joined if the Detroit Red Wings hadn’t signed him to a two-year contract on July 11. It’s a deal that probably would not have been consummated had the Red Wings not guaranteed MacDonald an NHL salary the second year ($550,000 on a one-way pact).
"Fortunately enough, I wanted to stay here, where my heart has been my whole playing career," said MacDonald, who will play for the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Fortunate would best describe his fate, following Wednesday’s plane crash in central Russia that killed 43 people, nearly the entire Lokomotiv team, including former Red Wings assistant coach Brad McCrimmon, defenseman Ruslan Salei and one-time prospect Stefan Liv.
The Red Wings were still trying to cope with the tragedy on Thursday, following their informal practice at Joe Louis Arena.
"I talked to Rusty (Salei) and Beast (McCrimmon) over the (past) year about going over," MacDonald said. "I’m speechless.
"It’s tough, especially with me talking to (Lokomotiv) in March. If I would’ve known (McCrimmon and Salei) were going over there, I probably would’ve signed with them.
"If the Wings hadn’t come knocking on the door, I probably would have been playing over there right now. And you never know what would have happened."
Russia has become a popular destination in recent years for veteran North American players who are unable to get an NHL contract or are looking for a bigger payday than they could get closer to home.
"I know (Lokomotiv) is a great organization," MacDonald said. "I talked to (former Red Wings and Griffins goalie) Marc Lamothe, a friend of mine, and he played over there (in 2004-05) and loved it.
"Even last year I talked to Dom (former Detroit goalie Hasek) about it. Dom said it’s the best league outside of the National Hockey League. When it’s coming from a goalie like Dom, you got to believe it."
But many who have played in Russia have expressed concerns about the safety of air travel.
"People say different stories, some good and some bad, about travel," MacDonald said. "The last three or four years, everything seemed to be good. Teams were paying good. A lot of NHL guys seemed to be going over there.
"(A crash) can happen anywhere. When you step on a plane, you never know what’s going to happen. Unfortunately for us, we had a lot of good friends on board."
Former Red Wings goalie Manny Legace spent six weeks with Russian club Khimik Voskresensk during the NHL lockout in 2004-05 but appeared in only two games before returning home.
"It was a different way of life and we weren’t allowed to go out in that town (Voskresensk)," Legace said. "If we wanted to go for lunch or dinner, we had to go a half-hour, 40 minutes away.
"They just didn’t want us to be around that town. We don’t know why. We all stayed in a little dormitory near the rink."
Legace said the planes were older, but he felt safe. Still, some doubts entered his mind.
"You’re not too sure about the inspections and how a lot of things go under the radar," Legace said. "You don’t know who they’re paying off and what’s going on.
"Igor (former Red Wings center Larionov) assured me everything would be OK, and it was."
Legace was on the Red Wings team plane that made an emergency landing in Sacramento due to a mechanical issue after a game in San Jose on Jan. 15, 2001.
"Accidents will happen, it’s a part of life," Legace said. "If you want to play this game, you have to fly."
And those who fly for a living try not to think of the worst-case scenario.
"You have to take it out of your mind, otherwise there would be a lot of guys who wouldn’t be doing this anymore," Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "We spoke a little bit about it yesterday, what are the odds? The odds of getting into a car crash are way higher."
Legace believes a fear of flying has ended some players’ careers prematurely.
"There are a lot of guys that hate flying. Amazingly, a lot of them are Russians," Legace said. "Iggy (Larionov) didn’t like to fly. Pav (Datsyuk) doesn’t like to fly. Sergei (Fedorov) didn’t like to fly. It’s weird. Maybe (it’s their flying experiences in Russia)."
Datsyuk did not skate Thursday and wasn’t available for comment.
Some players have no doubt this disaster will prompt many who are deciding between other leagues and the KHL to avoid Russia.
"It would really concern me," Red Wings defenseman Mike Commodore said. "When you’re flying planes that are 30-35 years old, that’s pretty scary. I wouldn’t want to get on one of those planes.
"It’s going to be kind of tough for the guys that are over there right now. It’s definitely got to be in the back of their minds."
Legace, who will attend the Vancouver Canucks training camp on a tryout, said, "No question (the crash) is going to weigh on my mind if I got on offer (from a Russian team)."
But, he added, "I’d never say never. Money does talk."
MacDonald was asked if he would consider playing in Russia after his contract expires.
"Probably not, because my wife is kind of freaked out about it, especially when it was one of the teams I had talked to," MacDonald said. "It would be a tough decision."
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