At the front of the funeral chapel in mid-town Toronto, along with the wreaths of flowers, the sweaters of the teams Igor Korolev played for and the flag of Canada, his adopted country, was a montage of photographs playing on a screen.
The pictures of his personal life were varied, a beaming Korolev showing his love for his wife Vera and daughters Kristina and Nastya or relaxing with a wide variety of friends and family on the beach or on the water.
The pictures of his hockey life, though, were all the same. In every one of them, Korolev was in a group of players fighting for the puck, his determination writ large on his face. There were no pictures of him roofing a shot over a goaltender after a silky-smooth deke for that was not what he was. He was the working man’s player.
Those who played or worked with Korolev on the Toronto Maple Leafs say he brought that determination to the dressing room as well. He worked equally hard to bridge the gap between the Russian and North American players, a gap that is often a chasm in the NHL.
“If there ever was a guy who would bring groups together it was him because of his personality off the ice,” said Paul Dennis, a sports psychologist who was the Leafs’ player development coach when Korolev played for the team from 1997 to 2001.
“He was an unbelievable quality individual,” Dennis added. “He would muck it up in the corners, dig the puck out for the star players with never a complaint in his heart or his mouth.
Korolev, who was in his first year as an assistant coach with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv of the Kontinental Hockey League, died on Sept. 7, the day after his 41st birthday, when the charter jet carrying the hockey team crashed shortly after takeoff. Only one of the 45 passengers on the Russian jet survived.
More than 300 people attended Korolev’s funeral in Toronto on Sunday. Among the mourners were many current and former NHL players including Alexei Yashin, Doug Gilmour and Dmitri Mironov.
Korolev was not one of the stars on the Leaf teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s, years in which they were one of the better teams in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. But he was an important player to head coach Pat Quinn because of his work ethic and his ability to unite the various cliques.
“I remember we had discussions about that with Pat Quinn,” Dennis said. “We thought it would be [better]for team chemistry and team cohesion if we got away from that type of setting.
“[Korolev]and Dmitri Yuskevich were instrumental in making sure we didn’t have cliques on the team, that we were one big family. He played a huge role in that regard.”
Just how big was shown by the number of Korolev’s former teammates on those Leaf teams who appeared at his funeral. Glenn Healy, Tie Domi, Kris King, Dallas Eakins, Derek King, Steve Thomas and Nik Antropov were there. So was NHL vice-president Mike Murphy, who coached the Leafs in 1997-98, Korolev’s first year with the team.
“You’d talk to Iggy and he would get the entire Russian group to agree with what you wanted,” Healy said. “That was just the way Iggy was. He was one of those guys - easy-going, smooth-sailing. A great guy.”
Domi played with Korolev on both the Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets and says he played the same role on both teams.
“He was a leader and in his own way,” Domi said. “He was the guy that if there were any issues, or anything going on and you wanted all the Russians to be there, you made sure you told Iggy because he would make sure they were there.”
Korolev adapted quickly to the North American lifestyle, eventually settling in Toronto, where his children were raised, and becoming a Canadian citizen. The Moscow native made sure to pass along his wisdom to any young Russians in his wake. Two of them, Nikolai Kulemin of the Maple Leafs and Nik Antropov, a former Leaf now with the Winnipeg Jets, paid their respects on Sunday.
“If you met him, he was totally North-Americanized,” Domi said. “But he didn’t forget his roots. When Russian kids came, he made them all feel comfortable. That was the leadership he showed.”