Former Minnesota Wild player Pavol Demitra dies in Russian hockey team plane crash

Minnesota's Pavol Demitra, right, skates through center ice as he is chased by Colorado's Joe Sakic during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Western Conference Quarterfinals in 2008. File Photo/Eric Stromgren

Former Minnesota Wild player Pavol Demitra was one of 36 Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team members killed in a plane crash Wednesday in Russia.

The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) team was headed to Minsk for its season-opening game when it crashed into a riverbank shortly after takeoff. The crash killed 43 and the two survivors are in grave condition.

It is a shocking and sad day for hockey.

“The Minnesota Wild organization joins the rest of the hockey world in mourning the tragedy involving the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club,” read a statement from the Wild on Wednesday. “Pavol Demitra was a valuable member of our team for two seasons and helped the Wild claim its first-ever Northwest Division title in 2008. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Demitra family as well as all of the families that lost loved ones today.”

Demitra was a key player for Minnesota from 2006-08 during his two seasons with the team. The Wild made the playoffs both seasons and have yet to reach the postseason since 2008.

That 2007-08 regular season was the best in franchise history. The Wild finished 44-28-0-10 that year and won the first Northwest Division title in team history.

Marian Gaborik, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Brian Rolston, Brent Burns, Mikko Koivu, Niklas Backstrom and Demitra all had strong regular seasons.

Demitra had 15 goals and 39 assists that year.

The Wild were unable to replicate regular season success in the playoffs and lost to Colorado in six games in the Stanley Cup quarterfinals.

I remember Game 5 in St. Paul well. It turned out to be the last Wild game at the Xcel Energy Center that year and the last time Demitra would play in front of the home crowd as a member of the Wild (he played in Vancouver for the next two seasons before Lokomotiv).

The Wild outplayed the Avalanche in Game 5 but lost 3-2. Minnesota outshot Colorado 40-17.

Demitra beat goalie Jose Theodore with a heavy slap shot from just inside the blue line during the second period when the game was tied 1-1. But the goal was waved off by the referee on an offsides call.

I took a few photos from the press box at Game 5. One of my favorites was of Demitra skating across the Wild logo at center ice next to Joe Sakic. The image is at the top of this blog.

Colorado scored early in the third period, won the game and took all the momentum back to Denver for Game 6.

Even though Theodore played great in the series, I always wonder if the Wild could have won the series if Demitra’s goal in Game 5 counted.

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