New Lightning assistant Wayne Fleming reflects on coaching in Russia, Alex Cherepanov's death

cherepanov.jpgI’ve stated it before – and mentioned it last night on a podcast – but the Southeast Division is transforming from “the Washington Capitals and a bunch of misfits” to possibly the most fascinating division in hockey. From the Caps will-they-or-won’t-they story to the resounding transformations of the Panthers, Thrashers and Lightning, it’s a group that has popcorn flick appeal for hockey dorks.

Even if he hadn’t recently been added to the Lightning staff, new assistant coach Wayne Fleming would be a fascinating and tragic figure. The St. Petersburg Times featured an interesting (and soul-crushing) story on Fleming, who reflected on his complex experiences coaching overseas in Russia. While the article includes intriguing discussion of failed NHL player Alex Svitov, the dominant storyline regarded Fleming’s experience dealing with the stunning death of prospect Alex Cherepanov. The New York Rangers first round pick died during a KHL game on October 13, 2008.

These three question and answer paragraphs absolutely haunted me this morning.

Is there anything you take from what happened?

From a team perspective, it was like taking a crystal vase and dropping it on the concrete floor and trying to pick up the shattered pieces. It was devastating. But it was the individual, too, that passed away. The thing that really hurts is not only do we lose a great player, we’re missing just a fantastic young man. He had a great smile on his face. He was the golden boy of the KHL.

What do you recall about the incident?

When he first collapsed, there was about five minutes left in the game. It was Jagr who yelled at me and said, “Wayne! Wayne! We need help!” And I looked down, and Jagr was holding Aleksei on his lap on the bench. I could tell right away he was in trouble, and the doctors got to him and wanted to take him off the bench. They applied CPR. All I could think of was, “Oh, my God, no.”

What impact did Aleksei have in Omsk?

This is a city of a million people in the middle of Siberia. When we had the ceremony and the funeral for him, it was in the arena. Prior to that, there was a (viewing) from 11 o’clock in the morning to 1 o’clock. During those two hours, 60,000 people went by his coffin; the youngest was probably 4 to I’d say the late 90s. When they closed the door to start the funeral, there were another 40,000 people estimated waiting who never got to walk by and pay tribute to Aleksei. You’re talking about a town of a million that had over 100,000 people there to pay their respects.

One hundred thousand people showed up for Cherepanov’s funeral. My goodness.

You don’t shake the memory of losing a player – especially right in front of your eyes, especially one so young and promising. It’s pretty hard to root against someone like Fleming. Hopefully he can move beyond that horrible incident and help the Lightning turn things around.

Let me leave you with a 2007 video of Cherepanov discussing being drafted into the NHL. It’s heartbreaking to watch in retrospect.

 

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    PHT Morning Skate: What’s holding the Islanders back?

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    Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

    • University of Alabama hockey player Jon Lovorn is dedicating this season to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School. (SECCountry.com)

    • It’s time for the NHL to give all 31 teams an outdoor game next season. (Vice Sports)

    • Philly.com takes a look at Sean Couturier‘s “well-balanced” life and how it got him to the NHL. (Philly.com)

    • A strong end to 2017 could help the Predators land home ice advantage in the playoffs (Predlines)

    • If/when Seattle makes it to the NHL, there might be too many teams in the Pacific Division. How would realignment look? (Five for Howling)

    • One of the reasons the Oilers have struggled for so long is because of their inability to select solid players late in drafts. (OilersNation.com)

    • The only thing that appears to be holding the Islanders back is goaltending. (The Hockey News)

    • The Hershey Bears released their 2018 Outdoor Classic Jersey for their game against Lehigh Valley next month. (RussianMachineNeverBreaks.com)

    • The Rangers’ recent struggles prove that they need to be sellers before the trade deadline. (NY Post)

    • The Devils and Coyotes swapped minor-league forwards yesterday. New Jersey got Michael Latta while the Coyotes got Ryan Kujawinski. (NHL.com/Coyotes)

    Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

    The Buzzer: Saros, streaks, shutouts

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    Player of the Night: Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators

    You can criticize the Edmonton Oilers for taking too many perimeter shots and/or having their defensemen fire the puck far too often, and you’d probably have a point.

    Still, on nights like these, you also have to acknowledge that the Oilers have also run into some tough luck and even tougher goalies. When it came to Thursday, Saros was that tough goalie, and he reminded the NHL that’s he capable of being more than “just a backup.”

    The Finnish goalie set a new Predators record by making 46 saves for a shutout, collecting the second goose egg of his blossoming career.

    The Predators (specifically Kyle Turris‘ new second line, which might need to be called a 1B line at this rate) are on a roll, beating Edmonton 4-0 to grab at least one point (7-1-2) in nine of their last 10 games.

    Highlights of the Night

    Nice play finished by Patrick Kane, as the Blackhawks cooled the Jets:

    Jakub Vrana‘s goal was pretty sweet, and a taste of the Capitals’ recent dominance of the Bruins.

    Josh Bailey‘s hat trick is worth watching here, even if it wasn’t enough to propel the Islanders to a win against the Blue Jackets.

    Scary moment

    Here’s hoping that Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Ryan Callahan are OK:

    The Lightning kept their hot streak going with a W over the Coyotes.

    Factoids

    Brayden Point gets the Lightning their … well, you probably know. Their points.

    The Wild are picking it up, and it’s not just the power of Bruce Boudreau. Probably.

    The Flyers are weird, and so is hockey.

    Scores

    Capitals 5, Bruins 3
    Flyers 2, Sabres 1
    Blue Jackets 6, Islanders 4
    Canadiens 2, Devils 1 (OT)
    Ducks 3, Blues 1
    Wild 2, Maple Leafs 0
    Blackhawks 5, Jets 1
    Avalanche 2, Panthers 1
    Sharks 3, Flames 2
    Predators 4, Oilers 0
    Lightning 4, Coyotes 1
    Golden Knights 2, Penguins 1

    Fleury gets revenge against Penguins, Vegas grabs 20th win

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    If you’re the fussy type, you might object to the word “revenge” in the headline.

    It feels wrong to say that Marc-Andre Fleury got “the last laugh” against the Pittsburgh Penguins, being that this game happened in mid-December. So feel free to soften the verbiage; maybe you’d prefer to say that Fleury and the Vegas Golden Knights merely “got the best” of the Penguins.

    Either way, round one goes to “MAF.”

    The instinct might be to ding this game because it came in Vegas instead of Pittsburgh, but you could say that there was a healthy offering of Penguins fans tonight:

    Whatever way you slice it, there was reportedly a fascinating atmosphere in Vegas, even if the game was a bit “low-event” at times, at least when you consider sheer pucks on net; Fleury stopped 24 out of 25 shots on goal while Murray gave up two goals on 26.

    This odd-angle goal by Ian Cole was the only puck to beat Fleury, who was lights out in a second straight victory since returning from concussion issues that … we thought might have been the end of the Golden Knights’ hot start.

    If the scene wasn’t nostalgia-laced enough, consider that Fleury evoked the save he made against Nicklas Lidstrom in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final:

    Sheesh, some of this stuff almost seems on the nose, doesn’t it?

    Remarkably, the Golden Knights improve to 20-9-2 while the Penguins fell to 16-14-3. Writing that almost made me pass out from the unlikelihood of it all; honestly, if someone told Golden Knights management that their record could be 16-14-3, they’d probably take it, right?

    In case you’re wondering, yes, this marks another record.

    So, the Golden Knights are 12-2-1 in Vegas so far. This doesn’t guarantee that there’s some sort of … sickness that comes from playing a team located in Sin City, yet it doesn’t exactly slam the door shut on such a conversation, either.

    Now, Marc-Andre Fleury? He’s done quite a commendable job of shutting the door so far for the Golden Knights. His old buddies found out the hard way tonight.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    Now Flyers are on a five-game winning streak

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    It wasn’t pretty, but every NHL coach prefers the aesthetic value of a “W” over an “L.”

    After a bewildering 10-game losing streak, the Philadelphia Flyers are now on a very different run, as a 2-1 victory against the Buffalo Sabres makes it five straight wins. Fans probably aren’t calling for Dave Hakstol’s head right now, not with his team a mere two points out of a playoff spot.

    Interestingly, it seems like the Flyers may be approaching things in a way that would make Bill Parcells nod in approval: lifting themselves up when down (see GM Ron Hextall’s optimism during the losing streak) while keeping heads straight amid success.

    Really, it might just come down to Thursday’s win being “no frills,” as the rest of their five-game run has been pretty impressive:

    Dec. 4: 5-2 win at  Calgary
    Dec. 6: 4-2 win at Edmonton
    Dec. 7: 4-1 win at Vancouver
    Dec 12: 4-2 home win vs Toronto
    Tonight: 2-1 home win against Buffalo

    A three-game road trip through Western Canada can sometimes be deadly; instead, the Flyers buckled up and turned things around, including winning games on back-to-back nights (and three victories in four evenings).

    To some extent, the players who’ve been performing well all season are showing up during this winning streak. There have been strong outputs from Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and others who we’ve come to expect to produce.

    The most interesting hot streak might be that of Brian Elliott.

    Elliott is responsible for all five of the Flyers wins during this run, allowing eight goals in five contests. Early on, he had to put on a show at times (stopping 43 shots against the Flames), yet he’s only needed to turn aside 39 of 42 shots for his last two wins.

    Overall, it’s been an up-and-down first season in Philly for Elliott, a goalie who teams seem almost strangely eager to give up on.

    Last season, Elliott played a huge role in the Calgary Flames turning their season around to make the playoffs, including generating 10 wins in the month of March. Ultimately, the team saw enough between a tough start and some postseason struggles to cast the veteran netminder aside.

    Perhaps Elliott is a lot like his still-new team in the Flyers: best when people leave you for dead.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.