ONE OF OUR BEST: Karlis Skrastins will be missed by millions.
RIGA - On Wednesday, Sept. 7, Latvians learned the tragic news that one of their most respected countrymen had his life cut short, along with the lives of 44 others. As news began to filter out of Russia on Wednesday afternoon that the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv ice hockey team had been involved in an airplane accident and that there were only two survivors, Latvians were left clinging to the hope that one of the two survivors was one of Latvia’s favorite sons, Karlis Skrastins.
But within a few hours they would be delivered the heartbreaking news that Skrastins was one of the 43 who had perished in the accident.
Thirty-seven-year-old Skrastins had been onboard the Yak-42 passenger plane destined for Minsk, where he and his team were due to take on Dinamo Minsk the following day in their opening game of the 2011/2012 Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) season.
However, it was a destination they would never make. Taking off from the Tunoshna airport approximately 17km from Yaroslavl, witnesses told of the plane appearing to be struggling to get off the ground, overrunning the end of the runway. Lacking sufficient ascension, the plane would then appear to hit a local radar antenna located at the end of the runway, seeing the plane split in two with one half landing in the Volga River, giving little hope of there being any survivors.
Russian player Alexander Galimov – one of the two to have survived the initial accident – would pass away in the hospital on Monday, Sept. 12, having sustained burns to 90 percent of his body.
Latvia was not the only country outside of Russia mourning the loss of one of their own with the squad also home to a number of other international players and coaching staff.
Skrastins was considered to be one of Latvia’s all-time hockey greats, having enjoyed a distinguished career playing in the National Hockey League (NHL) in North America.
After being drafted into the NHL in 1998, Skrastins went on to appear in 832 NHL games in 12 seasons, playing for the Nashville Predators, Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars. In that period he would also earn himself the nickname “Ironman” when, on Feb. 8, 2007, he appeared in his 487th consecutive game, a then record for an NHL defenseman.
In the 2004/2005 season, when the NHL season was suspended following a player lockout, Skrastins cemented his place as a legend of his countrymen, returning home to play for HK Riga 2000 in the Belarusian league.
At the end of 2010/2011 Skrastins opted for a new environment and agreed to return to Europe to play in the KHL. Thursday’s game against Dinamo Minsk would have been his first competitive outing for Lokomotiv, although he had appeared in a number of preseason games for his new team, including in Riga, where Latvians would never have thought that they would be seeing the legend play for the last time.
Internationally, Skrastins was one of the linchpins in the Latvian defense, appearing in nine world championships and three Olympics for his national team. At the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 he was the captain of the Latvian team.
Amongst his biggest achievements internationally was being part of the Latvian side that was promoted from World Championship Division B to the elite division. Since that memorable occasion in 1995, Latvia has remained in the top division.
Tributes have been flowing in for Skrastins and his teammates from around the world, and particularly from the North American hockey community.
Colorado Avalanche legend Joe Sakic had played with both Skrastins and one of the other players on board the plane, defenseman Ruslan Salei of Belarus. “Both Karlis and Ruslan were unbelievable individuals and great teammates. They will be sorely missed. My condolences go out to their families and all those affected by this tragedy.” It would be somewhat ironic that Skrastins and Salei would even come to be playing together, having earlier in their careers been traded for each other.
In a tribute on hockey Web site, nhl.com, Skrastins was said to be “one of the most dependable and calming influences along the blue line throughout his 13 seasons in the NHL.”
Latvian club Dinamo Riga - which also plays in the KHL - expressed their sympathies on their official team Web site. “We express our deepest sympathies to all the families of the air crash fatalities, and in particular the family of Latvian Karlis Skrastins,” read a statement on the site.
In another mark of respect to Skrastins, his final NHL team, the Dallas Stars, will this season play with a number 37 emblem on the back of their helmets. 37 was the number worn by Skrastins in his final two years with the club.
Skrastins is survived by his wife, Zane, and two daughters, Karolina and Laurena.