International Hockey Community in Mourning

They say the hockey community is small. However small, it is just that, a community. Tragedy has come in various doses this summer, but none bigger than the one that collectively sank the hearts of our tight-knit group. At least 43 individuals, all gone.

The players and coaches are of various descent and backgrounds. Some were well known in North America, others weren’t. Some were young, some were old. All different. All the same. Teammates, yes, but members of the greater hockey family.

That’s why we all feel the effects. For whatever reason, unlike any sport, hockey people just seem to get each other. We’ll have our inside disagreements like if we should or shouldn’t ban fighting or if Gretzky was better than Lemieux or Orr or Howe. But when it’s all stripped away, we are united. United by a common love of this game.

This blog tends to focus merely on hockey in just one country, but it is the international nature of the game that makes it so special. It doesn’t belong to just one nation. It belongs to the world. It belongs to us and because it belongs to us, this news hurts.

If there is one positive we can take out of this mess, it is that in tragedy we, as a community, came together. Through social media, blogs, news outlets, there was reporting and reacting. As details continued to come out, each more heartbreaking than the one before, phone calls were being made to friends and fellow fans, vigils broke out, various tributes and memorials came pouring out. We all cared. It was happening to not just someone in a far off land, it was happening to us.

None of us could even begin to imagine the pain felt by the families of the victims, the die-hard fans of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, or the proud people of Russia. They are the ones we all are thinking of and praying for. I’m sure most of us felt pits in our stomachs when reading Jeff Chick’s account of taking the family of Karlis Skrastins to the airport.

All of the sudden, while we were remembering players we’ve cheered for, Chick’s account brutally reminds us that there is so much more to these men that we often forget about when watching them play. Their wives, their children, their families, their humanity.

Despite the lack of proximity or direct relation, we all still feel something. Many feel very strongly. Whether it’s sadness for the loss, or our hearts breaking for the families of the deceased, it seems like just about everyone is licking wounds this morning.

With the state of the world, it seems as though we’ve been conditioned for tragic news. Sometimes we’re just numb to it. Not this time. We weren’t actually all that far away from it. It happened right inside our little community.

We are lucky that hockey has such an international flavor.  It connects people from Bratislava to ones in Toronto, from Yaroslavl to Chicago and everywhere in between. That is a big reason I’ve loved international hockey. I’ve been lucky enough to experience hockey in Belarus, Germany, Canada and the U.S. and it’s always a new experience, but usually the same. The passion is the same. For a few hours, everyone in the arena is speaking the same language.

There are few fans in international hockey more passionate than those in Russia, which is why my heart aches for that great hockey nation. This tragedy has to shake them right down to the core. The love they have for their professional teams and players is on a completely different level than what we’re used to in the U.S.

Then you look at the players from other countries. Canada, Slovakia, Latvia, Belarus, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany, Ukraine. Many nations mourning the loss of at least one native son. Rene Fasel, president of the IIHF said, quite accurately, in a statement, “This is the darkest day in the history of our game.”

Each player, coach, team staffer and flight crew will be remembered in different ways. Most of us know only of their on-ice accomplishments, and we will remember each player and coach fondly for that. Perhaps the player we are most familiar with is Pavol Demitra, who I will remember this way:

When news broke that Demitra was among the dead, the first thought that popped into my head was his emotional farewell to Slovakian fans as he was to end his international career. It was only a few months ago at the IIHF World Championship, which took place in Demitra’s homeland. Even before this news, it was one of my favorite moments in international hockey because it shows the passion that players play with and the admiration they deservedly get for their contributions to club and country. Here it is:

Demitra at first almost looks sick to his stomach, knowing this was the last time he’d wear the Slovakian colors. Then his emotions take over and the tears start. But it’s not just Demitra that’s crying, it’s many of the fans standing and applauding. A national hero, who scored Slovakia’s biggest goal in the 2010 Olympics, was taking his final bow.

With what has happened, his final farewell is all the more meaningful. We are reminded just how much hockey and the men who play it really mean to us. They entertain and sometimes they inspire. They are part of our lives in that way.

We’ve lost many wonderful human beings this summer. And we were introduced to all of them the same way, through this truly beautiful game played on ice.

Just as hockey brought these people into our lives, hockey will help us all heal and tighten our close-knit group, as Joe Yerdon beautifully wrote yesterday.

Never have we needed the game more.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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