A woman places a flower on a Slovak national hockey jersey at the ice hockey… (Radovan Stoklasa / Reuters )
Ruslan Salei's hockey career led him away from Anaheim after nine seasons with the Ducks but his heart remained in Southern California.
The Belarus native married a woman he met here and settled into life in Orange County with his family, which expanded in March with the birth of their third daughter, Ava. During summers or whenever he could steal time he reconnected with old teammates and friends, his vibrant personality making them smile over lunch, dinner or the screen of a smart phone.
Those friends and teammates were distraught Wednesday after learning Salei was among 43 people killed when a chartered plane carrying the Lokomotiv team of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League crashed shortly after takeoff from Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow. Salei, the Ducks' franchise leader in games played by a defenseman at 594, had planned to play another season or two before retiring to California to join the Ducks' alumni organization and rejoin his wife, Bethann. He was 36.
"I can't imagine not getting a text or phone call from him when he'd come home for the holidays or whatever," said team physician Craig Milhouse, whose relationship with Salei became a firm friendship. "I've had a gut ache all morning."
More than a half-dozen former NHL players perished in the crash, which occurred as Lokomotiv departed for its season opener in Minsk. "I was so sad to hear about this and I still can't believe it. This is a dark day for everyone," Ducks winger Teemu Selanne said.
The crash affected nearly every NHL team and reverberated around the world, taking players from 10 countries.
Also killed were Coach Brad McCrimmon, a former NHL defenseman who left an assistant's job with the Detroit Red Wings to get bench experience; forward Pavol Demitra, who played for the Kings in the 2005-06 season; defensemen Karlis Skrastins and Karel Rachunek; forward Josef Vasicek, who won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006; assistant coach Alexander Karpovtsev, who won the Cup as a player with the New York Rangers in 1994, and Polish-born goaltender Stefan Liv, who helped Sweden win the 2006 Olympic and world championships.
The sad list also included 20-year-old forward prospect Daniil Sobchenko, who opened eyes of San Jose Sharks executives during the team's development camp in July.
Demitra, a native of Slovakia, was the 1999-2000 Lady Byng trophy winner as the NHL's most gentlemanly player.
"I'm devastated," said Luc Robitaille, the Kings' president of business operations. "When he came to us he was going to be one of our top guys and he certainly didn't disappoint as a player. He had the same personality as Ziggy Palffy: just a fun guy to be around.
"Just happy to play hockey. He loved the game. That's why he was still playing."
The death of McCrimmon, 52, stunned Ron Hextall, the Kings' assistant general manager and teammate of McCrimmon's with the powerful mid-1980s Philadelphia Flyers.
"When I think of teammates I had over the years and great teammates, Brad McCrimmon is at the top of the list," Hextall said. "Any athlete wants to be remembered as a good teammate. He truly was."
McCrimmon, nicknamed "Beast" for his physicality and ability to play 30-plus minutes per game, usually played alongside Mark Howe. Hextall recalled talking last season with McCrimmon, then an assistant with Detroit, and Howe, a Detroit scout.
"I had such a strong bond with those guys. Beast was on our top 'D' pair and I think he and Mark Howe were the best pair in the league," Hextall said. "The last time I saw him, he and Mark Howe came over to me and we just started talking. You could not see the guy for two or three years and you'd see him and it was like you'd just talked yesterday."
Initial reports didn't list Salei among the victims and suggested he had taken an earlier flight. However, the Russian Ministry of Emergency later confirmed his death. Only one player, Aleksander Galimov, and a flight crew member were reported to have survived.
David McNab, the Ducks' senior vice president of hockey operations, said Salei was "a pro" from the moment the club drafted him ninth overall in 1996 and excelled during the Ducks' run to the Cup finals in 2003.
"I've always told people he was the perfect guy for our franchise for a lot of years because we had a lot of young Russians and he knew the value of communication and he forced them all to learn the language," McNab said.
"He showed up every night. He was an underrated guy and the coaches could play him in any situation. In 2003 he got a chance to shine because we went to the finals, and I think that's when a whole lot of people realized this guy was really a good player."
To recently retired Ducks forward Todd Marchant, Salei was an exceptional teammate. "He was the type of guy, when he came into the room, he could lighten it up with a joke or with just the way he talked. His personality was infectious," Marchant said.
"He just had this way about him. He didn't back down from anybody. He was always a guy who would stand up and hold people accountable. … It's just a tragedy that his life had to end so soon."
To Milhouse, whose sons skated with Salei in summertime pickup games, he was a good friend. "It's impossible to say how much he will be missed," Milhouse said.
Times staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this story.