Sometimes, we as Americans don’t know how good we have it. We begin to take things for granted, little details that we never notice but play a huge role in keeping us safe. As someone who has spent significant time in aviation, I know how carefully our airports are designed and how much thought goes into their location. That, unfortunately, is not always the case internationally as we found out in 1996 when Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown’s plane crashed into a mountain right next to the runway in Croatia. Today, we read about the tragedy that took the lives 44 players and coaches in Yaroslavl, Russia. Once again, it appears that faulty airfield design may have played a role in a devastating accident.
Among the dead were several players with NHL ties, but two of them are especially mourned here given their ties to the Kings. Pavol Demitra made the NHL full-time at the age of 23 and immediately established himself as a point per game player. He had his greatest success with the St. Louis Blues, a team that regularly made the playoffs only to fail to advance to the finals. My first memory of Demitra was Patrick Roy stoning him from close range in the 2001 Western Conference finals. The look in Demitra’s face said it all – the Blues were going down for another defeat.
Demitra played only one season for the Kings, coming here as a free agent following the lock-out year. At the time, he was touted by Kings’ President Tim Leiweke as proof the team was serious about being competitive. In retrospect, perhaps too much was asked and expected of Pavol here in Los Angeles. Certainly, he was a player with elite skills, although like most athletes, his production began to decline after he hit 30. But, Demitra was never the guy you build your team around, the player who will carry everyone else on his back. He was excellent in a support role in St. Louis where Keith Tkachuk and Chris Pronger were the team leaders, but that kind of leadership was absent in Los Angeles. Despite the high expectations placed on him, playing such a role was not in Pavol’s nature. Perhaps the toughest thing you can ask of a professional athlete is to perform a role he is simply not capable of executing. This was probably Demitra’s epitaph in Los Angeles, and he was traded by the new regime at the 2006 entry draft for Patrick O’Sullivan and Trevor Lewis.
While his time here was brief, there are some glorious memories. For myself, I still remember the goal Demitra scored against Roberto Luongo of the Florida Panthers early in the season. Demitra found himself in alone on a breakaway, but he was facing a goaltender who, at the time, was considered one of the very best. With a deke that included moving his hips almost completely sideways, Demitra got Luongo to commit to the backhand while Pavol calmly dragged the puck to the forehand and into an empty net. There is no doubt, however, that the highpoint of Demitra’s year here was the hat trick he scored on Hat Night. I hope you watch this in tribute to a great hockey player.
After leaving LA for Minnesota, Demitra had some good, not great, years with the Wild playing with countryman Marian Gaborik. The final two years of his NHL career were spent with Vancouver, but by now Demitra’s skills had eroded, and he was only a shell of his former self. Not wanting it to end yet, Demitra signed with Lomotiv Yaroslavl in the KHL and actually had a respectable season last year with sixty points in 54 games. This is probably a reflection of the vast difference in the level of competition between the European leagues and the NHL. While the money in Russia can be good and what players earn is tax-free, the facilities are not first class and the domestic travel is not regulated by international standards. There are no words to accurately describe the sadness today in the hockey world. I will leave it with a single comment – Pavol Demitra put a lot of smiles on the faces of hockey fans during his time on Earth, and there are worse ways to be remembered.
Jan Marek never played in the NHL. He was part of the Kings’ depth chart as a piece of the Sean Avery deal, but he never expressed or showed serious interest in playing in the NHL despite great success overseas. Playing in both the Czech and Russian leagues, Marek was a point per game player over 13 seasons. As to why he never wanted to play in the NHL, I suspect, and this is only speculation, that his game required the larger ice surface to be successful and that he thought he would have less success in the tighter checking and more physical NHL. I heard from one guy who met Marek on several occasions and he told me Marek loved the game and always had a smile for everyone in his orbit. It is sad we never got to see what he could do here in Los Angeles. To the families of Demitra, Marek and all the others killed in the crash, S & S would like to express our deepest condolences.