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TREMENDOUS TEAMMATES

Former Griffins Pavol Demitra, Karel Rachunek and Stefan Liv were victims of the Russian plane crash that killed the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team.

Story and photos by Mark Newman

Mike Fountain was working at the Walker Ice and Fitness Center on Sept. 7 when a friend called him with news about a plane crash in Russia.

The former Griffins goaltender initially shrugged off the news. Having played seven years in Russia, he had experienced his share of white-knuckle flights, so the report of a plane going down in the former Soviet Union was hardly shocking.

“But Mike,” his friend said, “these were hockey players.”

The blood rushed from Fountain’s face. He quickly found a computer. An Internet search revealed not only the sketchy details of the crash, but also the roster of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team.

His worst fears were confirmed.

“In Russia, you shake hands after every game, and I was able to put a face to almost every name on that list,” Fountain said. “I was in shock. It was just a terrible, terrible tragedy.”

The private Yakovlev jet carrying the Kontinental Hockey League team crashed shortly after takeoff, killing 43 people, including several former NHL players.

Among the dead were three former Griffins: Pavol Demitra, 36, who played 16 NHL seasons and was captain of the Slovakian national team; Karel Rachunek, 32, the Lokomotiv team captain and a veteran of eight NHL seasons, and Stefan Liv, 30, the Polish-born Swedish goaltender and one-time Red Wings prospect.

Also killed were Lokomotiv head coach Brad McCrimmon, 52, the former Red Wings assistant who had left Detroit to pursue his dream of becoming a head coach; and Ruslan “Rusty” Salei, 36, the veteran defenseman from Belarus who played for the Red Wings in 2010-11.

The news rocked the close-knit hockey world, which was already reeling from the recent deaths of players Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak by various causes.

The Lokomotiv team, which was en route to its first game of the season, was one of the country’s best-known hockey teams. The fact that the players lost in the accident were well-traveled professionals made the tragedy seem even worse. That most were young fathers made it more catastrophic.

“Hockey is a close family,” said Griffins assistant coach Jim Paek, who knew both McCrimmon and Salei as well as Liv. “Even if you didn’t know them all, you’re still affected. It’s such a small community.”

Demitra was probably the best-known of the players who perished. He recorded 304 goals and 464 assists in 847 NHL games with Ottawa, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Vancouver.

He tallied 20 goals and 30 assists in 42 games with the Griffins during the team’s inaugural season in 1996-97. In March 1997, Demitra became the first of Grand Rapids’ 117 NHL graduates when he was recalled by the St. Louis Blues, with whom he enjoyed his best years. He topped the 35-goal mark three times.

In Grand Rapids, Demitra played on a line with Michel Picard and Jeff Nelson, the younger brother of Todd Nelson, the first player signed by the Griffins and the current coach of the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons.

“They were one of the best lines at the time,” Todd Nelson said. “Pavol was very dynamic, very creative. He wasn’t very big, but he worked hard to get stronger, and you could see that he had what it took to get to the next level.”

Matt Ruchty, who played for the Griffins from 1996-99, remembers Demitra as a player that clearly didn’t look like he belonged in the IHL.

“He was young, a great player who didn’t realize how good he really was,” said Ruchty, who was fortunate to get some ice time on the same line with Demitra. “He was clearly better than everybody else.”

Ruchty recalls that Demitra and Picard had great chemistry. “Michel was a little older than he was, but it was obvious that Pavol knew what he was doing. He was such an offensive force. He was in total control.”

Demitra and Picard “were just awesome,” recalls Travis Richards, who played 10 seasons with the Griffins before retiring in 2006. “They were absolutely dynamite together.”

Richards said everyone knew that Demitra was never coming back when he left the team for the NHL. “”You knew he was going to be in the NHL for a long time. That he would become an NHL All-Star was no surprise.”

Demitra broke his nose twice during his half-season with the Griffins, but he appreciated the opportunity to play in Grand Rapids nonetheless. “To see 11,000 fans go crazy every night no matter if we win is unbelievable,” he told Griffiti.

Grand Rapids, however, was only a stepping stone. “Everybody in my country have dream to come here and play in the NHL,” he said in his broken English, which would improve over time. “It was my dream when I started playing when I was three years old.”

Ruchty remembers going to a tattoo parlor with Demitra and teammate Bruce Ramsay. “He wasn’t sure he wanted to get a tattoo, but he eventually decided to get one. He didn’t have a super grip on the language, but he was a fun guy.”

Rachunek knew even less English when he came to the Griffins as an Ottawa Senators prospect from the Czech Republic in 1999. His girlfriend at the time acted as his translator until he could take English classes sponsored by the Senators and conducted in the Griffins’ conference room.

“He was obviously very quiet but a nice guy,” said Richards, who was Rachunek’s defensive partner for most of the year. “Before our first game, I remember asking what he wanted me to call him and he said, ‘a little bit.’ Obviously we didn’t talk a lot, but he was a nice, hardworking kid.”

Like Demitra, Rachunek demonstrated the kind of talent that earns a player a ticket to the NHL. He played 62 games with the Griffins during his only season in the IHL. “The writing was on the wall – he was going places,” Richards said.

Rachunek spent five seasons in Ottawa before playing two years with the New York Rangers and one year with the New Jersey Devils. His NHL career saw him total 22 goals and 118 assists in 371 games.

“He had a really good skill set: he moved the puck well and had a great shot from the point,” Nelson said. “His English wasn’t great, but he was always smiling.”

Fountain knew Rachunek not only from his year with the Griffins but also from playing at the same time in Russia. Rachunek played parts of six different seasons in Russia.

“He always had a big smile on his face,” Fountain said. “That never changed. Even in Russia, he’d be battling on the ice in front of the net and he would give me a wink. He was still Karel.”

Rachunek would frequently meet Fountain for dinner. “We’d meet in the lobby of the hotel and just chat and share Griffins stories,” he recalled. “Other times we’d meet for five minutes before boarding the team bus.

“Sometimes terrible things happen to good people and Karel was one of the good people.”

Liv was another player who was well-liked by everyone who knew him. Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard roomed with Liv on the road during their time with the Griffins.

They played together during the 2006-07 season, the only year that Liv played in North America and Howard’s second season in the pros.

“We had a great partnership and it was a lot of fun being roommates on the road,” Howard said. “He was a great guy – you couldn’t say anything bad about him whatsoever. He was taken way too soon.”

In memory of his friends Liv, McCrimmon and Salei, Howard changed the backplate of his goalie mask for the 2011-12 season into a tribute depicting images of the three over the words “Forever In Our Hearts!”

Paek remembers Liv as a tremendous competitor who was mature and professional – the perfect teammate.

“The way he prepared for games, you could see that he was a competitor,” Paek said. “He was intense and competed hard. He hated to lose. It’s such a tragedy. He was such a special talent.”

Liv was a member of the Swedish national team that won the goal medal in the 2006 Winter Olympics. His former pro team in Sweden, HV-71, plans to honor him by retiring his number 1 jersey. The team’s current goalie, ex-Griffins netminder Daniel Larsson, agreed to switch his number so that it could be raised to the roof of the arena later this season.

“Liv was a great guy who just loved playing hockey,” recalls Griffins equipment manager Brad Thompson. “He was always in a happy mood. You had to pinch him to see if he needed something.”

Griffins goaltender Joey MacDonald remembers Liv backing him up one game in Detroit. “I spent a lot of training camps with him growing up because we were close to the same age. He was just a nice guy, really quiet. He had a great thing going in Sweden.”

GriffinsForever300.jpgThe Griffins organization will honor their three former players with a memorial helmet sticker and jersey patch that will be worn by players throughout the 2011-12 season. Both the patch, which will be worn during all 38 home games, and the sticker display the words “Griffins Forever” above the jersey numbers worn by the players during their time in Grand Rapids. Demitra’s 38 is shown in blue, Rachunek’s 29 is depicted in gold to represent his one-time status as a Senators prospect, and Liv’s No. 1 is displayed in red to reflect his tenure during the Griffins’ affiliation with Detroit.

MacDonald spent most of last season in Detroit, so he knew McCrimmon and Salei as well. “Both of them were great guys,” he said. “I talked to both of them about playing in Russia. If I had known they were going, I would have signed there in a heartbeat.”

McCrimmon was a positive force on the bench. “He’d never say anything bad about anybody,” MacDonald said. He was also quite the storyteller. “He told stories from the time we took off until the time we landed,” Howard said. “He was like clockwork. As soon as we got to the right altitude, he would come to the back of the plane and tell stories the whole time and have all the guys roaring.”

As fellow coaches, Paek had developed a close relationship with McCrimmon. “I’d see him in training camp and we’d spend a lot of time together. We’d talk hockey and tell stories. During the season, you make phone calls and share information. His death hit me hard.”

McCrimmon started his hockey career in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, which was Nelson’s hometown. The pair crossed paths years later when both were coaching in the Atlanta Thrashers organization. “He knew my family,” Nelson said. “I looked up to him and we kept in contact.”

Nelson said McCrimmon was a good resource who would do anything for anyone. “I talked to him in June and he was so excited to be a head coach,” he said. “It’s just a tragedy.”

The loss of Salei was a double whammy for the Red Wings organization. Paek used one of Salei’s sticks in practices by the Black Aces during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“He didn’t really know me, but we had that little connection and he was always very respectful, would always say hello,” Paek said. “He was a tremendous teammate and you can see that by how (Pavel) Datsyuk honored him by wearing his number during the preseason.

“When everything is said and done, I’d like someone to say I was a good teammate, too. I think that’s the ultimate compliment.”

Paek’s wife, Kortney, is organizing local efforts to raise donations for all the Lokomotiv players’ families.

A “Love for Lokomotiv” prayer bracelet is being sold by wives and girlfriends from every team in every professional league, and Paek plans to sell a Livestrong-type bracelet for fans at Griffins games. All proceeds will go directly to the Love for Lokomotiv charity. For more information, visit loveforlokomotiv.com.




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