Thursday, September 8, 2011

Another Chapter in Hockey's Summer of Tragedy...

Everyone's heard the news about Ruslan Salei and Brad McCrimmon by now, but I'm guessing most of us are still trying to process it. I know it sounds silly to mourn the loss of someone you've never met before, but passionately following a sports team has a way of forging a strong (and admittedly one-way) bond with the players you root for game in and game out. You listen to their post-game pressers, watch interviews they give about locker room antics, see them grimace in pain out on the ice, and grin from ear to ear as they celebrate a goal or a victory. If you watch enough games, you come to recognize their skating stride or the way they handle the puck without having to see the name or number on their jersey. You take photos during warmups and laugh at the goofy face they happened to be making as you snapped the picture. Little by little you “get to know them.” Obviously you don't really know them, but over time you come to have some sense of their personality. You know which player is the practical joker, which one is the cranky old veteran who wants to yell at the rookies to get off of his lawn, which one has the unwavering intensity every second he's on the ice from warmups to the final horn. Even if they're caricatures in your mind, they become “real” people to you. When they're wearing your team's uniform, you celebrate together and you hang your heads in despair together. You have the same foes, whether they're wearing another team's uniform or black and white stripes. You're on their side, and in a way, they're on yours.

It's no surprise that over the course of as little as one season, you get attached to players. When one loses his life suddenly and unexpectedly, it's jarring. You get slapped in the face with your own mortality. Here were a bunch of guys in the prime of their lives on an airplane heading to a hockey game and in an instant they were gone. We always assume that there'll be a tomorrow, a next week, even a next year. We take that for granted—every one of us does, no matter how hard we try not to—and every once in a while something comes along and reminds us that there are no guarantees. Being able to put faces and personalities with the names you see on the lists of the dead makes it hit home that much harder.

Three men with ties to Detroit lost their lives in the plane crash, so naturally Wings fans everywhere are mourning. It's not just Wings fans who were impacted, though. I was at work when I heard the news this morning and part of my job was to talk to groups of students from all over the country who were just arriving to start their internships. In the course of my spiel, I always bring up hockey by mentioning the Lightning. In one of the groups that I talked to, a girl interjected and asked if I'd heard about the crash. She was a Blues fan and neither one of us was aware that Pavol Demitra was among the dead yet. In our brief discussion about the tragedy, we shared a moment—the kind that bonds the small but passionate hockey community. When I saw Demitra's name listed later, I thought about her; I wondered if her heart broke a little when she heard the news.

Most of all, though, I think about the families the players left behind. Their wives, their kids, their siblings, and their parents who have to pick up the pieces of their lives and find a way to move on. One of my first thoughts when I heard about Salei's death was about his infant daughter who will never know her father. This story also broke my heart, as did the reports of a player's mother who suffered a fatal heart attack upon hearing the news of her son's death. If you thought that we as fans were devastated by the news, imagine what those closest to the players are feeling tonight.

I don't know about you, but I'm ready for this summer of hockey tragedies to be over.