Wednesday was a tragic and sad day for international ice hockey because of the Russian plane crash that killed 43 people, including numerous National Hockey League veterans.
The sunny-weather crash of the 18-year-old Russian Yak-42 jet into the Volga River 150 miles northeast of Moscow wiped out virtually the entire Yaroslavl Lokomotiv hockey team, which was flying to Belarus capital Minsk for a Kontinental Hockey League season-opening game against Dinamo Minsk.
A victim was Karlis Skrastins, 37, a native of Riga, Latvia, who had signed a contract with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv in May after 11 seasons in the National Hockey League, most recently with the Dallas Stars.
Skrastins was a childhood friend and Latvian junior hockey playing partner of Vilnis Nikolaisons of Hailey, captain of the Sun Valley Suns men’s hockey team and its all-time leading scorer after 13 years of playing hockey here.
Like Skrastins, WoodRiverValley painting contractor Nikolaisons is a native of Riga, Latvia. He said he was devastated by the news of the crash and the death of his lifelong friend. “We were like best buddies growing up. He was my best friend off the ice,” said Nikolaisons.
Skrastins achieved much in the NHL after being drafted by the Nashville Predators in the 1998 NHL entry draft. A hard-nosed, 6-1, 210-pound left-shooting defenseman, Skrastins earned the nickname “Ironman” for playing in a then-NHL blueliner record 495 straight games from 2000 to 2007.
He signed a two-year, $2.75 million contract with the Dallas Stars in July 2009 and fulfilled the contract before leaving in May 2011 to join Lokomotiv. His wife, Zane Skrastina, and daughters, Karolina and Laurena, ages 6 and 3, stayed behind in Dallas. They immediately flew to Russia Wednesday after learning the news.
Nikolaisons said, “Karlis was the second youngest of five children. He came from nothing. They were so poor. He couldn’t afford the hockey gear. We grew up together and played together until juniors. We had a tight group of 10 to 15 guys. We were like brothers.”
This past February, Nikolaisons traveled to Dallas with his 6-year-old son Jake, who had the thrill of his young life by visiting Skrastins in the Dallas Stars locker room.
Nikolaisons said, “He was the least selfish guy. On the ice he would block shots, do anything to help the team. Money and fame didn’t change him a bit. He never visited here, because he was playing in world championships or something each off-season, always working, but we kept in contact.”
There were many similarities between the lives of Skrastins and Nikolaisons, including their ages, 37, and the fact that both were raised in Communist Russia and came to the U.S. to play hockey after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
Distraught after learning the news Wednesday morning, Nikolaisons got together with friend Normunds Krepss, 37, who also lives in the WoodRiverValley, played for the Suns and comes from a Latvian hockey background. They reminisced about their friend Karlis and looked at old photos.
“It’s been a tough day,” said Nikolaisons, who has a daughter Aija, 4, along with son Jake. “The first thing I did was hug my children. You never know.”
Skrastins’ mother survives and lives in the Latvian countryside, her famous son having helped her move from Riga. Nikolaisons had already planned a trip to Latvia to see friends and relatives later in the fall. Now the trip has added significance.