Pavol Demitra was a gifted offensive player who spent parts of 16 seasons in the NHL, playing for two Canadian teams while starring for the St. Louis Blues a decade ago.
“Pav was like a brother to me and I cannot believe that he is no longer with us,” former Blues teammate Keith Tkachuk said in a statement Wednesday. “This is a terrible day for the hockey fraternity.”
The Slovakian scorer, known for a heavy, accurate shot and a playmaker’s eye, was one of at least 43 people killed Wednesday when a Yak-42 plane carrying the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv club of the Continental Hockey League crashed moments after takeoff. Demitra was 36.
“He had a great spirit,” Vancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said. “He was always fun to be around. I know from playing in Europe, and growing up there, he was seen as maybe the best Slovakian player of all time. He was huge back there. And I think he showed that in the Olympic tournament here in Vancouver, how good of a player he was.”
Agent Matt Keator said Demitra was a national hero in his homeland, and garnered huge respect from his fellow countrymen in the NHL. He came to North America at 19, and Keator said he was considering retirement after the 2011-12 season with Yaroslavl.
“I went out with him three weeks ago in Russia and he’s the one who organized the whole team to go out together,” Keator said. “A very loyal friend and teammate. That’s what all these guys talk about. I work with a bunch of the Slovaks and they all talk to him. They all hold Pavol in high esteem.”
For the Ottawa Senators, Demitra was a prospect brimming with potential but forever going up and down between the big club in Ottawa and the farm team in Charlottetown. A trade to the Blues was a godsend for Demitra, who was holding out, and one of the rare miscalculations by a Senators management team known for unearthing and developing talent.
The forward went on to play in three NHL all-star games and win the Lady Byng Trophy in 2000. He had his best season in 2002-03, when he had 93 points and 36 goals for the Blues. He also played for the Los Angeles Kings and Minnesota Wild before returning to Canada.
Demitra spent his final two NHL seasons in Vancouver, playing for former agent Mike Gillis, the Canucks general manager who made the Slovak his first marquee free-agent signing after taking control of the team in 2008.
Demitra, nicknamed Demo, suffered a serious shoulder injury in the playoffs that season, and missed most of the 2009-10 campaign recovering from two corrective surgeries. He admitted that the rehabilitation process was so long and rife with setbacks that he considered retirement.
At one point that year, he returned home to Slovakia to be with his ailing wife, Maja, whom he leaves along with children Lucas and Zara. His wife’s illness also led Demitra to consider retirement.
Demitra returned in time to compete for his country at the 2010 Olympics, however, and he had perhaps the best fortnight of his career. He led the Olympics in scoring with 10 points, and was named to the tournament all-star team after a sensational performance against the world’s best.
Though it was surprising performance given Demitra’s health, he was always a player who shone alongside offensive-minded linemates, and chafed when skating with less talented teammates.
In the dying stages of a semi-final game against Canada, Demitra had a glorious opportunity to score the tying goal, only to be stopped by goaltender Roberto Luongo, his NHL teammate. The save of the tournament preserved victory for Canada, and came just moments after another terrific stop on Demitra.
In true Olympic spirit, Luongo and Demitra shared a warm moment and a laugh about the close encounters in the handshake line after the game. Because the save happened so quickly, Luongo was unaware of the shooter until informed by his friend as he extended his hand.
“I told him good luck,” Demitra said at the time. “He played great and I can’t believe he made those saves on me.”
With reports from James Mirtle