Retrospectives are tough to write. What do you say? What're the players highlights? Are you leaving things out? Thinking things through too much? Did the player make an impact on the team, or is nostalgia getting in the way?
It's obvious that with Pavol Demitra there is nothing to leave out. Nothing to think through in excess. He's one of the top scorers in Blues history - nostalgia is a moot point. There is one question, though - will a haze of grief make fans remember him more fondly than he should be?
No. He deserves to be remembered as one of the strongest players to wear the Note, and helped make pre-lockout Blues hockey one of the dominant forces in the league. After the disastrous crash that killed 43 people, decimated the Lokomotiv KHL team, and took the lives of former Blues Demitra and Igor Korolev, there's no way to not let sadness in on the reflection of careers cut horribly, unfairly short. We mourn for the families and friends of those lost, and we recognize that this is possibly one of the greatest disasters in professional sports history. In mourning, though, we look back at what made these people so special and how they contributed to the success of sports franchises that we all love so much. It gives us, as sports fans, a chance to reflect on how much the game means to us - as an escape, as entertainment - and how much these guys that we will more than likely never meet will impact our lives.
Demitra came to St. Louis in November of 1996 after disagreements as far as playing time went with the Ottawa Senators. Demitra was playing with their AHL affiliate PEI Senators, with only brief stints with the NHL club. Mike Keenan, in what has been widely called one of his only decent moves, acquired Demitra from the Sens for Christer Olsson. One team got a star forward, the other got a mediocre defenseman. The trade obviously worked out better for St. Louis than it did for Ottawa.
Demitra didn't automatically begin play for the Blues, though. He continued IHL play - playing eight games for St. Louis in which he scored three goals. Those games impressed the management, who got Demitra into the Note full time at the beginning of the 1997-1998 season. In 61 games played that year, Demitra netted 22 goals and 30 assists. The next season saw him score 37 goals, and wind up on the NHL All Star team. Demitra would go on to be an all-star as a Blue twice more, in 2000 and 2002. He broke the 30 goal mark twice more with the Blues in 2001-2002 and in 2002-2003. He never scored below twenty goals for the team aside from the eight games he played in 2006-2007. He finished his NHL career sixth in scoring all time for the Blues with 204 goals.
Criticism followed him later in his NHL career, especially in Vancouver - plagued with injuries and other setbacks he was considered soft by some, and had disagreements with Vancouver's coaching staff that further hampered his playing time. He didn't lose his will to play hockey, however. He signed a one year contract with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in July of 2010, and was looking forward to playing another year with them this season.
Demitra and Keith Tkachuk were a notable combo on-ice, both with strong net presence that'd overwhelm a goaltender and force an easy goal for Walt. Tkachuk, upon hearing of his passing remembered Demitra as a brother. In countless remembrances from players and management, the picture forms. Joy of the game. Leader. Great friend and teammate. The player who won the Lady Byng trophy, yet managed to sleep through it. One of the best to ever play in St. Louis, yet ego free. The consummate professional, the perfect teammate, the close friend. The player who won the Lady Byng trophy, yet managed to sleep through it.
After the lockout, Demitra left St. Louis to play for the LA Kings. Before he signed a deal with Los Angeles, he had this to say:
"I don't want to leave," Demitra told reporters at the time. "The fans are so great here (in St. Louis). I want to win a Cup in this city. We want to be the first guys to do it here."
Words like that have been uttered by some of St. Louis' other beloved stars: Hull, Shanahan, Pronger, MacInnis. Demitra, like them will always hold a place in Blues fans' hearts, because the place we held in his was always so prevalent.