Josef Vasicek put his name on the Stanley Cup in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes. There will always be that tie, that memory, that bond.
"Joe was an awesome guy, always in good spirits, always with a smile on his face," the Canes' Eric Staal said Wednesday of his former teammate.
But a year of tragedy in professional hockey now has been marked by an unimaginable horror: the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team of the Kontinental Hockey League perished Wednesday in a plane crash in Russia. Vasicek, 30, was among the 43 people killed.
Lokomotiv head coach Brad McCrimmon, who once played for the Hartford Whalers and was a longtime NHL assistant coach, also died in the crash outside Yaroslavl, Russia.
In recent months, those in the NHL have had to come to grips with the deaths of players Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. The loss Wednesday affected and saddened so many associated with the sport.
"It's awful. It makes you sick to your stomach," Staal said.
Vasicek, a native of the Czech Republic, helped Carolina reach the 2002 Stanley Cup finals, centering a line with Martin Gelinas and Jaroslav Svoboda that was productive in the playoffs. Vasicek had an overtime goal in the New Jersey Devils series, and set up Gelinas' winning goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals that eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs.
A knee injury limited Vasicek's role on the Canes' 2006 run to the Cup, but he did appear in eight playoff games.
"Joe was such a great person and a great part of our team, always giving everything he had," Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said Wednesday. "He was a valuable person to the Hurricanes organization but more importantly the kind of person people always wanted to be close to.
"We all feel so bad for his family and the families of everyone touched by this tragedy."
The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the Yak-42 jet carrying the team to its KHL season opener in Belarus crashed in good weather seconds after takeoff from the airport in Yaroslavl, about 150 miles northeast of Moscow. The plane reportedly hit a navigational beacon and landed in a riverbank.
There were 45 on board, including eight crew members, and two survived the crash but were critically injured. Among the players killed was former NHL All-Star center Pavol Demitra.
"Though it occurred thousands of miles away from our home arenas, this tragedy represents a catastrophic loss to the hockey world - including the NHL family, which lost so many fathers, sons, teammates and friends who at one time excelled in our league," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
McCrimmon, 52, was a defenseman for 18 seasons in the NHL and was with the Whalers when the franchise was bought in 1994 by Peter Karmanos Jr., Thomas Thewes and Rutherford.
"Brad was a great person, a great hockey man," Rutherford said. "He was a veteran player when he played for us but contributed a lot from a character point of view.
"I've known him a long time. To make the move he made, to go to Russia and then to have his life end like this, it's just devastating."
Canes coach Paul Maurice said he called to congratulate McCrimmon the day after he got the KHL job.
"He wanted to be a head coach for so long and was all fired up about the opportunity," Maurice said.
McCrimmon was playing for the Whalers when Maurice was named Hartford's head coach in November 1995.
"People asked me how I would handle the older players," Maurice said. "He was an older player, but he just wanted to play the game. He was a salt-of-the-earth, old-school hockey guy, the kind of guy everyone in hockey knows."
That includes Canes head trainer Pete Friesen, who attended high school with McCrimmon in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
"He was a great athlete, a very disciplined person and maybe the most mild-mannered person I ever met," Friesen said.
Vasicek was selected by the Hurricanes in the fourth round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. The Canes traded him to the Nashville Predators for Scott Walker in July 2006 but brought him back in a February 2007 trade.
Vasicek last played in the NHL with the New York Islanders, spending the past three seasons with Lokomotiv.
"Joe was always a team guy and was a good man," Canes winger Chad LaRose said. "A life ended too early."
The Associated Press contributed.
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