RALEIGH — Looking back, I guess the only advantage I had over Josef Vasicek was that I spoke better English. We were both rookies in fall 2000, he in the NHL and me covering the NHL, both feeling our way
through all the usual blind corners and dark alleys.
"Big Joe" was a revelation that season, making the jump straight out of junior hockey to the NHL and holding down the third-line center spot. More than that, he was a ray of light in the dressing room - unfailingly cheerful, with a huge smile, just happy to be in the NHL - while wearing a number, 63, usually reserved for training-camp tryouts and warm bodies soon to be toiling in the low minors.
He also played for the Nashville Predators and New York Islanders, but he was always a member of the Hurricanes at heart - a key member of the 2002 team, the leading scorer in 2003-04 and part of the 2006 Stanley Cup champions.
When the Hurricanes reacquired him from Nashville after only a few months in 2007, I reached him on the phone that night. His first words to me? "I was so happy," he said. "To come back to a place that I know, it's great to be coming home."
After Carolina let him go that summer, he spent a year with the Islanders before he signed with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Russian KHL in 2008. That's where he was supposed to play again this season, until Lokomotiv's plane crashed on Wednesday, killing 43 - Vasicek and former Hartford Whalers defenseman Brad McCrimmon among them.
I haven't covered the Hurricanes for more than three years now, but those eight years on the beat were a big part of my life. Unavoidably, so were the people I covered. When I found out about the plane crash, that Joe was among the victims, I felt old to have outlived someone so young. More than that, I was heartbroken.
It's been a tough summer, not just for the NHL, but for hockey fans in North Carolina. Losing Don MacMillian was hard enough. Walking into the arena will never be the same without Donnie Mac back there. Chopper Harrison, the bete noire of my time on the beat, passed away just last month, but not before we reconnected and made our peace. And now Vasicek, only five days shy of his 31st birthday.
Joe was once like me - learning his job just as I was learning mine. Those guys who came up that year and stuck around - Vasicek and Niclas Wallin and Craig Adams - our version of Hurricanes history was the same. It began when we got there. Now, with Joe gone, a big chunk of it is over.
He was unfailingly cooperative with the media, no matter the demands. I remember hanging out with Vasicek and Jaroslav Svoboda at their Prestonwood townhouse for a story during training camp in 2002, the two of them goofing it up at the snooker table for the benefit of our photographer.
Ask him how he was feeling on any particular day, and he'd say, "pretty good," no matter how he actually felt. One day, I asked him at the morning skate and he said, "really good." That night, he recorded the first hat trick of his career.
When I went to Europe during the lockout, Vasicek told me to make sure to swing by Havlickuv Brod if I made it to the Czech Republic. I never got that far. I figured I'd get there eventually, and Big Joe would be waiting there when I did. It's impossible to comprehend that he is not.