Families of the victims, the KHL and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl are feeling the greatest impact from that terrible plane crash, but that tragedy reaches past borders. Beyond affecting the hockey community at large, the victims included several former NHL players and coaches whose untimely deaths left many heartbroken.
The Detroit Red Wings were among the NHL teams who were hit the hardest by the crash, with former assistant coach Brad McCrimmon and defenseman Ruslan Salei being such recent fixtures with the club. (The team was likely also shaken by the death of Stefan Liv, a former prospect.)
In a heartwarming gesture, the team announced that Russian star Pavel Datsyuk will switch from his typical number 13 to Salei’s number 24 during training camp and all eight preseason games to honor his teammate. Salei was a defenseman with Detroit during the 2010-11 season.
“I think everybody misses Ruslan Salei,” Datsyuk said. “It’s an honor to wear his preseason jersey. I have only good memories when I remember Ruslan. I’m very happy to put No. 24 on my jersey for the preseason.”
While the entire team has been affected by the loss of Salei, McCrimmon, and former prospect Stefan Liv, it has particularly hurt Datsyuk, who had a close bond to Salei. The pair used to sit together on team flights and bus rides to and from rinks.
“I had hoped to know him more (then) on year,” Datsyuk said. “We knew each other before, but last year we flew together and talked. Now I miss him.
“I have one daughter, but he has three kids, and one of the kids plays hockey. I think it’s tough. He was a real good man.”
Echoing the thoughts of a considerable chunk of the hockey population, Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock praised Datsyuk for his emotionally charged gesture toward a former teammate and friend.
“I think that it’s absolutely outstanding,” said Babcock, of Datsyuk’s action. “I talked to Bethann the other night, Rusty’s wife, and she was talking about the kids and remembering Rusty.
“She was talking about taking her little guy to hockey the other night, and he said to her, ‘I’m not playing anymore. Pappa doesn’t play anymore; I’m not playing anymore.’ What do you say? I think it’s fantastic by Pavel, and obviously we’re going to miss Beast and Rusty.”
The Red Wings will be in attendance for McCrimmon’s funeral in Farmington, Michigan on Saturday afternoon, making this one of what could be many incredibly emotional days for the franchise going into what could be a pivotal 2011-12 campaign.