It was a trip no family ever wants to take.
Igor Korolev’s wife and children boarded a plane early Thursday morning bound for Russia, where they had the grim task later in the day of having to identify and recover the body of the former NHL player.
Most important, they had to bring him home.
While Korolev was born in Moscow, he will be buried in Toronto, not far from his North York home and where he had his best years as a member of the Maple Leafs.
A day after his death in the plane crash that killed Korolev and all but one other member of the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv KHL team, his friends both in and out of hockey remembered him as a man who loved the game and loved being a Canadian.
“I called his wife and you can imagine how distraught she was,” Korolev’s former Leafs teammate, Steve Thomas, said. “But she did say that Igor, the day he flew, said he wanted to come home. He missed his family. That was really sad to hear that.
“He felt that Toronto was home for him. And I think that’s why she wants to bring him back. That was probably his wish.”
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues in 1992, Korolev was part of the first wave of Russian players to come to North America, and it wasn’t an easy transition.
After two trying years as a Blue, he was claimed off waivers by the Winnipeg Jets, where he finally excelled as a player and cherished his new surroundings.
“Igor was a leader on that team,” Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger recalled. “He fit into that group. He wasn’t an outsider. He wanted to be a guy who made a difference. He embraced it.”
When the club moved to Phoenix in 1996, former teammates said Korolev was as devastated as anyone on the team.
After one poor season in Arizona, he signed with Leafs in 1997, playing well in four years in Toronto and making it the permanent home for wife Vera and daughters Kristina and Nastya (who are now 18 and 15).
Korolev spent three more seasons in the NHL and another six in Russia before taking a job this off-season as an assistant coach in Yaroslavl, a role he had talked excitedly about all summer with former teammate Nik Antropov.
“At the same time, he didn’t really want to leave home,” Antropov said.
Now a member of the reborn Jets, Antropov was unable to speak with Winnipeg media on Wednesday because he was overcome with grief after hearing about the accident.
Korolev had been his mentor, his neighbour and the godfather to his son, a relationship that began when he acted as a father away from home when Antropov arrived in Toronto as a scared 19-year-old from Kazakhstan, unable to speak any English.
The pair remained close, and even as their careers took them to different parts of the globe, they met up for barbeques at Korolev’s home every summer.
“Igor took me under his wing,” Antropov said quietly into the phone. “I’m still in shock. He was a great man. Had an open heart. It’s a really bad loss, you know?
“It’s tough. He took care of me like a brother.”
One of Antropov’s most vivid memories, meanwhile, is of the day Korolev became a Canadian citizen, in 2000, and they celebrated well into the night.
“He loved Canada,” said Igor Kuperman, a former Jets staffer who became one of Korolev’s closest friends. “He really, really loved Canada.”
“Not your typical Russian player,” Thomas added. “He was more of a guy that, as the years went on, really wanted to become more of a Canadian.”
No one in the hockey world was surprised when Korolev became a coach for the first time this summer, as he’d mentored so many young Russian players since coming to North America that it was simply second nature to him.
Lately, he and his wife had become close with Leafs winger Nikolai Kulemin, who – like Antropov a decade earlier – needed help learning English and a friendly face to show him around town.
That was always Korolev, and Kuperman said that kindness would be what he remembers him for, more than anything he did on the ice.
He only wishes he had one last chance to talk to his old friend.
“The day before the tragedy, he had a birthday and I tried to call him,” Kuperman said. “I couldn’t get a hold of him so I sent an e-mail. It wasn’t answered.”
“Won’t be answered.”