Friday, September 9, 2011

Going Home.

The plane was full of promise. It carried men from ten different nations, joined together to celebrate the opening game of a new season. For some, it was a fresh start. There was one of the first Russians to have his name etched on the Stanley Cup, almost 20 years ago, sitting with a Czech whose name was added twelve years later. For others, it was a last stop. A three-time NHL all-star who thought this would be his final pro season before retirement. There was a Swede who took home Olympic Gold in 2006, sitting with players from the Russian and Czech National squads, now all one team. A 1,000 game NHL veteran, now a coach, joined with teenage prospects whose careers had yet to begin.

In one fell swoop, three generations of hockey were lost, leaving a void that will remain in the sport indefinitely. While the tragedy struck on the far side of the world, the painful reach of such an event is long and stinging. It’s been a long and rough summer for hockey, and now, the day after the unofficial end of summer, it has been hit with the darkest day in the history of the sport.

Along with all of the upstarts and veterans there was 23 year-old Alexander Vasyunov, who spent the bulk of last season playing in my hometown for the Albany Devils of the AHL. In 50 games this season, his third in the Devils organization, he amassed a respectable 25 points. More importantly though, he was called up to play with the New Jersey Devils as a replacement for injured players on several occasions, scoring a goal and tallying four assists in his 18 games with the parent club.

Following the season, the Devils wanted to keep him, but as a developing player, they could not give him the one-way contract (guaranteeing that he would play just for New Jersey and not Albany) that he desired.

So instead of continuing with an organization whose constant shuffling might stymy his development, Vasyunov decided to return to the team where his career began, Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, which also happened to be his hometown team. He was determined to learn from his veteran teammates and, together with the added playing time, he hoped to return to North American hockey in a year or two.

Vasyunov was just twenty-three years old, and having achieved a level that many never come close to attaining, his only goal was to get better. It didn’t just mean going home; it meant playing with the likes of Pavol Demitra and Russlan Salei. It meant playing with hometown boys who hoped to follow in his footsteps, some already on the radar of NHL clubs, others just waiting for the chance to show their stuff.  

I went digging through hockey photos I had taken from last year and came across two of Alexander Vasyunov, taken during pre-game warm-ups at the Albany Devils’ home opener. They sat unused in a file because they weren’t especially good photographs, but I that seems sadly irrelevant now. 

So far as I can tell, it is the only time I have photographed someone who has died, but I can’t think of a better way to remember Alexander Vasyunov than to see him in action, doing what he loved. I remember writing something very similar about Petr Zezel, another former Albany player, who died in 2009, preferring to remember his grace on the ice and the way he would push up his elbow pads before each face-off, than to dwell on the sad circumstances of his premature demise. It’s the only thing to be done, because tragedies of this magnitude are hard to put into context, and for me it’s hard to say what I think about it.  I don’t really know what any of it means, but it all at once it seems to both put things into perspective and to make it hard to gain a perspective on things greater than ourselves. Jumbled thoughts, I know, but it’s all I have right now.

Vasyunov went home to do what he loved, and he died doing it. The question of how good of a player he might have one day become is only amplified by the speculation about where the other 40+ players on that plane might have ended up. Some, like Vasyunov, might have returned to North America. A few were already drafted by NHL teams. Others would have hoped to continue honing skills for play with national teams. Some might have stayed in Russia, happy to spend their remaining playing days in Yarolsavl. 

Regardless, they have all been called home by the Hockey Gods.  

I can’t say enough about him. He was going there just to improve his game. He was looking forward to coming back to play here in the NHL. He was just a fantastic kid. Respectful. You can’t say enough about him... He just wanted to go and play a lot and come back here…
--Lou Lamoriello, New Jersey Devils GM  

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