Kolupanowich: Demitra provides inspiration as Slovakia prepares for upset at Worlds

By: Tim Kolupanowich, Executive Editor

@TimKolupan_

As Slovakia gets set to take on Russia for the gold medal at the IIHF World Championship in Helsinki, Finland, they do so in remembrance of one of the country’s greatest players, Pavol Demitra.

Demitra was one of the 44 members of Yaroslavl Lokomotiv who were tragically killed in a plane crash on Sept. 7, 2011 as the team was on their way to Belarus for their season opener in the Kontinental League. It would have been Demitra’s second season with the team after spending 16 seasons in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild and Vancouver Canucks. He finished his NHL career with 304 goals and 464 assists for 769 points and a plus-124 in 847 games and sits fifth on the Blues’ all-time scoring list with 493 points. He was a gentlemanly player, recording only 284 career penalty minutes, was the recipient of the Lady Byng Trophy in 1999-2000.

Chris Johnson of the Winnipeg Free Press tells how Demitra has been an inspiration to the underdog team from Slovakia.

They’re playing for Pavol Demitra, the long-time national team captain who was killed in the Lokomotiv air crash in September.

“We all know that we’re not playing just for us,” Zdeno Chara said after Saturday’s emotional 3-1 win over the Czech Republic in the semifinals. “We’re playing for our country and obviously with the tragedy that happened … it’s also for Pav.”

This is the kind of story usually reserved for the movies. The Slovaks have been overmatched all along the way and barely got through a 5-4 victory over France that was needed to advance to the playoff round.

And now they’ll face Russia for a gold medal on Sunday.

“This is something really special,” said forward Tomas Tatar. “I don’t even have words for this.”

Heading into this tournament, Slovakia was ranked sixth in the world, but now they have a chance to be number one. This is the first time since 2004 Slovakia has made it to the final four in the World Championship and it will be their first medal since 2003 when they capped of a run of three medals in four years, capturing silver in 2000, gold in 2002 and bronze in 2003.

They got this far through balanced scoring, disciplined play and spectacular goaltending. Only defenseman Andrej Sekera (NHL, Buffalo Sabres) and center Michal Handzus (NHL, San Jose Sharks) have are averaging a point per game, but they have had different players step up every single game. In the semi final against the Czech Republic, it was Miroslav Satan who scored two goals in the 3-1 victory, including the tie-breaker 56 seconds into the third period.

Goaltender Jan Laco (KHL, Poprad Lev) continued his phenomenal play, keeping Slovakia in the game despite being outshot 37-28 including a 29-17 disadvantage in the final two periods. He is second to Russian counterpart Semyon Varlamov (NHL, Colorado Avalanche) in save percentage and goal-against average, though the difference is miniscule. Varlamov has a .940 save percentage to Laco’s .936 and their GAA is even closer, 1.74 to 1.75.

But they are missing their captain, friend and one of the greatest players to come out of Slovakia. Fortunately, a player that loved to represent his country left the international game in grace, not tragedy.

Demitra was always a heart-and-soul player that wore his country’s colours with pride. He left the ice in tears a year ago at the world championship, when he retired from the national team during the tournament on home ice in Bratislava.

The ovation he received was deafening.

Demitra had represented Slovakia in the World Championship six times (1996, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2011) totaling 12 goals and 29 points in 38 games, winning bronze in 2003. He was even better in the Olympics where he played three times (2002, 2006, 2010) and totaled six goals and 20 points in 15 games. He had his best showing in 2010 in Vancouver when he was playing for the Canucks. He totaled three goals and 10 points in seven games, leading the tournament in assists and points and willing Slovakia to an improbable fourth place finish. He was named to the All-Tournament team, the only player outside of Canada or the United States to receive the honor.

The team is honouring his memory in different ways at this event — some wear T-shirts with his picture on it under their equipment while forward Tomas Kopecky dons a ball cap for post-game interviews that carries Demitra’s No. 38 on the front and the words “always remember” on the back.

They felt his presence during an upset win over Canada in the quarter-finals and Saturday’s win over the rival Czechs.

“When you look at the game against Canada, after we scored the third goal, I just looked up and said ‘Thanks God,'” said Kopecky. “He’s with us, it’s unbelievable. It’s just a great feeling.”

They will be heavy underdogs once again in the final against a Russian team that knows the pain of the Yaroslavl disaster more than anyone. There isn’t a player here who didn’t lose friends that day.

However, while the Russian players are reluctant to talk publicly about their grief, the Slovaks are bursting with energy. They can think of no better way to pay tribute to Demitra.

“He was really close friends for all of us,” said Kopecky. “I’m pretty sure he’s looking (down) from the sky on us. It’s very emotional right now. It’s nice to see after a win, everybody is looking up at him and singing the national anthem.”

Zdeno Chara, seen here at the 2010 Olympics, will have all he can handle trying to shut down Russia in the gold medal game. (Fotagenic/Flickr)

It’s that positive energy that will help Slovakia out the most, as they will need every advantage they can muster against a powerful Russian team. Evgeni Malkin (NHL, Pittsburgh Penguins) leads the tournament with 10 goals, 18 points and a plus-14 in nine games, recording at least one point in every game. He’s had two hat tricks and three games with at least three points. Slovakian captain defenseman Zdeno Chara (NHL, Boston Bruins) will have his hands full keeping Malkin in check, especially when Russia has so many dangerous weapons including Alex Ovechkin (NHL, Washington Capitals) who has a goal in each game since entering the tournament following Washington’s elimination from the NHL playoffs.

It’s been an arduous journey so far for Slovakia. They lost their first two games to Canada and Finland by a combined 4-2 and of their seven wins, four have been by one goal or one plus an empty-netter. They barely managed to hang on against France after blowing three leads in the final game of the preliminary round then managed a come-from-behind win against Canada in the quarterfinal, scoring two unanswered goals in the third period to capture the game 4-3. Now they have one more test, the undefeated Russians. But they have played with heart and found someone to come up up big when they needed it. If they can keep it up and just maybe get a little help from their former captain, we could be looking at a major upset.

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