The Summer of Sadness

Pavol Demitra and the rest of his Lokomotiv Yaroslavl teammates were lost to the hockey world
in a horrific plane crash. Yet another tragedy this summer.
(Photo Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, another unimaginable tragedy shocked the hockey world.

A plane carrying almost the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club crashed after takeoff, killing nearly everyone on board. It was a devastating and horrific accident, taking from us dozens of talented, vibrant souls looking only to start another hockey season, playing the sport they loved.

Stanley Cup champions… Former NHL superstars… Young, budding talent… Coaches and managers… Fathers… Sons… Flight crew and support staff… Russians, Czechs, Slovaks, Canadians… all lost forever.

It is the latest in a seemingly continuous string of catastrophes to hit the hockey fraternity in this, the Summer of Sadness.

IIHF President called the Yaroslavl disaster "the darkest day in the history of our sport.". Of that there is no doubt. And allow me to elaborate. The summer has been the darkest season hockey has ever seen. And the Vancouver Canucks have been particularly affected by and affiliated with these tragedies.

One of the souls lost in the crash in Russia yesterday was former Canucks forward Pavol Demitra. While Demo is probably most famously known as a member of the St. Louis Blues, his last two seasons in the NHL were spent here in Vancouver. He was the first marquee signing in July of 2008 for his former agent and then-new Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis. Demitra’s time in Vancouver was somewhat underwhelming, as he failed to produce offence at the levels that many expected and he was beset by injuries. However, one of the great moments in his hockey career happened to be one of his last shining moments in Vancouver. During the 2010 Olympics, Demitra led his Slovakian national team on a terrific run through the tournament, scoring several highlight-reel goals and electrifying the local crowds. No doubt a lasting memory for Vancouver hockey fans is the embrace between Demitra and Luongo as they met mid-ice following their Olympic semi-final game. Demitra left an indelible mark on the club, as he is fondly remembered as a great teammate competitor, as well as a wonderful family man who thoroughly enjoyed his time in Vancouver. Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa provided his thoughts on the loss of his former teammate (from Bruce Garrioch), "Just sick to my stomach. Basically, a here-we-go- again type feeling. Pavol was a good friend, so it’s tough. I feel bad for his family and can’t imagine the day that they’re having (Wednesday)."

It was only a few short weeks ago that Bieksa was asked to comment on the death of another former teammate. When Rick Rypien passed away on August 15th, the news hit Bieksa particularly hard. Rypien and Bieksa were good friends, playing together with both the Canucks and the Manitoba Moose. As such, they "grew up" in hockey together, both making the move from the minor league to the NHL in the same time frame. As Rypien battled depression, Bieksa was one of the few people who had an inkling of the severity of the problems that Rypien was facing. Rypien was a favourite in his time in Vancouver and his death hit the Canucks community hard. Fan reaction was immediate and overwhelming. "Tough guys" like Rypien are often revered by their fans, because they do the so-called dirty work. They stick up for their teammates, they fight the battles that no one else wants to, or is willing to. Rypien was especially singled out because he often fought outside his weight class, taking on the behemoths of the league with aplomb.

Rypien was not the only NHL fighter to leave us this summer. Further compounding this summer of sadness was the deaths of two of Rypien’s former combatants, Derek Boogaard and Wade Belak. Rypien was known to have battled depression throughout his career, and as more details emerged following the deaths of Boogaard and Belak, it became clear that they were also both battling demons of their own. Boogaard had his problems with substances, while Belak (even though he hid this incredibly well) was also dealing with depression, much like Rypien.

Supposed suicides… accidental overdoses… air disasters. The deaths that have rocked the hockey world recently have been swift and blindsiding.

But let’s remember one thing. While we, the fans, mourn the losses of former Canucks, former NHLers, former hockey players, we are mere bystanders to these tragedies. We must remember that these were people. They were fathers. They were sons. They had families. They had close friends. They were not simply hockey players. They were loved. And they had lives that were not ours to know. Let’s remember that there are wives and girlfriends and children and parents who have suddenly and sometimes inexplicably lost their loved ones.

While this summer of sadness will hopefully pass soon, and hockey will move on, the sadness will linger for the families of those we lost. Our collective pain is probably temporary. Theirs may last a lifetime.