In what has seemed like the Summer From Hell, both temperature-wise for the U.S. and circumstance-wise for the National Hockey League, and the Nashville Predators in particular, the Preds received yet another blow with Wednesday’s news of the Russian airliner crash involving the KHL’s Team Lokomotiv and subsequent death of former Predators defenseman Karlis Skrastins, seen here with his most recent NHL team, the Dallas Stars. Skrastins was one of Nashville’s original draft picks and was with the team for five of his 13-season NHL career. (Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Friday the 13th
I can’t really say that I’m superstitious, but if I believed in curses, I’d have to assume that this summer of 2011 is about as close to cursed as off-seasons go for the National Hockey League. I do know it’s been particularly hard on the Nashville Predators and their fans.
It started early; with the accidental drugs & alcohol-related death of former Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard (long since nick-named ‘The Boogeyman’) on…you guessed it…Friday, May 13th.
That should have told us something.
Next came the riots by those idiots (be they hockey fans or merely opportunistic insurrectionists) in downtown Vancouver, following the hometown Canucks’ loss in Game Seven of a hard-fought, evenly-matched Stanley Cup Final series with the Boston Bruins, leaving the entire league with a bad taste in its mouth and Lotusland an even worse black eye.
But locally, the bad news was just getting started.
First, the controversy and heartburn surrounding Predators GM David Poile’s apparent mishandling of qualifying offers for six of its eight restricted free agents, whose legal paperwork missed the deadline for being received by the players. The mishap could have allowed them to become unrestricted free agents if so ruled by an arbitrator in the scheduled hearings that were set in the wake of the NHLPA’s subsequent grievance.
Fortunately for Poile and the Preds, all six players re-upped prior to the grievance hearing, with only forward and 2010-11 team-leading goal scorer, Sergei Kostitsyn receiving substantially more than he would have if the qualifying offer paperwork had been properly filed (and in the opinion of most, Kosy’s deal was fair and well-deserved when all was said and done).
Among the other two Nashville RFAs, Linus Klasen’s case was made moot when he opted to return to Sweden to play this season and Shea Weber had already been scheduled for team-opted salary arbitration (which, of course, everyone assumed would be a slam dunk).
All’s well that ends well, right?
Sure it was an unpleasant ride for a couple of weeks, but to Predators fans the heartburn seemed minimal. Little did they know, just when they thought the heat was off, the Summer From Hell would kick up the swelter another couple ‘a notches.
Shea It Ain’t So
In early August, the once-believed-to-be-unlikely arbitration hearing set for Captain Shea Weber was realized. What also was realized by the Preds faithful was the punch-in-the-gut feeling that getting The Captain re-signed would be far from the done deal it had been purported to be by everyone, including Weber himself.
Instead it would be the Preds fan base receiving the in-your-face-disgrace of Weber’s surprising insistence on a one-year deal, awarded at a market value-yet-small-market-budget-busting $7.5 million for 2011-12.
This left highly questionable the once assumed likelihood that each of the team’s so-called Big 3 (Weber, his defensive partner, Ryan Suter, and goaltending standout, Pekka Rinne) could be signed to long-term deals, assumedly solidifying Nashville’s stance as a Cup contender for the foreseeable future.
Whether or not that can still happen remains to be seen, but even in the minds of eternal optimists like yours truly, the misaligned stars of this summer’s downright weird course of events will have to make a determined effort to fall into order for the Preds to retain all three of their most foundational players beyond this season.
Then, just as the proverbial Tums of a couple week’s time allowed us to put the Weber contract behind us and once again scrape up a bit of optimism and excitement for the season ahead, it seems as though fate decided to take a different tack in tormenting not only Preds fans but those of the entire NHL.
On August 15, former Vancouver defenseman, Rick Rypien was found dead in his home, widely believed to be by his own hand. Rypien, like the fallen Boogaard before him was an NHL tough guy, and the disturbing circumstances surrounding his death quickly sent the wheels of the negativity machine into full motion; reprising the argument for abolishing the NHL’s fighting culture once and for all.
The sadness of yet another player losing his life was gripping enough, making an already surreal summer seem even more so. However, a little more than two weeks later, the sadness would become excruciating for Preds fans.
The Third Cut Is The Deepest
On August 31st, number 3 in your program and number one in your heart, recently retired Preds enforcer, Wade Belak, became the third NHL enforcer to be found dead this summer, and the second to be assumed attributable to suicide.
Much has been written, and even more has been assumed and speculated as to what happened and why with regard to the Rypien and Belak deaths, with no easy answers forthcoming. Hopefully the days ahead will shed some light on each of their situations and provide their families and fans the closure they need.
But fate wasn’t finished. Wednesday, as if to add sorrow upon sorrow, the grim reaper slashed the hockey world — and the Preds — yet again.
Locomotiv No More
The tragic news out of Russia Wednesday morning has once again ripped a hole in the heart of the hockey world. According to reports, all but a single member of the famous KHL hockey team, HC Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, traveling on a Yakovlev Yak-42 passenger plane that crashed near the city of Yaroslavl in Central Russia were killed. Among the 45-person compliment (37 passengers and a crew of eight), one player and one crew-member reportedly survived.
The team was on its way to the Belorussian capital of Minsk for its Kontinental Hockey League season opener Thursday versus another foundational KHL squad, the HC Dinamo Minsk. It’s been reported that the entire team was aboard the flight for the festivities of opening night.
No loss of life is insignificant, but given what the NHL and Nashville fans in particular have been through in this Summer from Hell, this was a huge blow. Among the six former NHL players confirmed dead for Team Lokomotiv were a pair of former Predators; forward Josef Vasicek and Nashville’s original 9th round pick (230th overall) in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, defenseman Karlis Skrastins.
Skrastins, like Belak, wore #3 for the Predators.
Karlis was a solid, stay-at-home defenseman for 13 NHL seasons with Nashville, Colorado, Florida and Dallas. His longest NHL tenure was the five seasons he played here in Music City. He wasn’t flashy. He didn’t score a lot of goals, nor tally a lot of assists. His wasn’t a big name to many beyond those directly interested in the teams he played for; they knew how good he was even if the general public didn’t. Skrastins did his job, made few mistakes, and was one of the better-respected blueliners in the league because of it.
He was also a friendly, warm and caring person, and like Wade Belak, will be missed by his erstwhile Preds family.
A friend of mine on Twitter this morning suggested that the unofficial retirement of #3 needs to happen this year. I think he’s right.
Another kind of Resiliency
As training camp looms, beginning a week from this Friday, and the 2011-12 season just beyond that, one wonders what lies ahead for this team. Can the Summer From Hell translate into the Season of Promise? Many believe it can. The Preds have exhibited tremendous physical fortitude in recent years, particularly last season when they were able to overcome a lengthy rash of injuries to complete their best finish in team history, finally breaking through to the second round of the playoffs.
Head Coach Barry Trotz loves to talk about his team’s resiliency. They’ll again need the kind of physical resiliency we saw last season to repeat that effort and go further this year. However, this season Nashville will need another kind of resiliency — the emotional kind.
Hopefully their trial by fire has ended for now.
(This) summer SUCKS.
Drop the puck!
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