SOCHI, Russia – Earlier this week, the European-based members of the Slovak national team were making their final public appearance in Bratislava when a motivational video was shown to send them off.
One man appeared again and again throughout the carefully selected highlights. Of course, it had to be Pavol Demitra.
“It was just the goals he scored and how happy he was when he scored in the Olympics,” Slovak assistant coach and former teammate Vladimir Orszagh said Thursday. “His spirit will be with us for a long time.”
Demitra was not only the heart-and-soul of the national team as a player – leading the entire tournament in scoring at the Vancouver Olympics during an unexpected fourth-place showing for Slovakia – but he’s also become a powerful source of inspiration following his tragic death in the 2011 Lokomotiv plane crash.
At the first IIHF World Hockey Championship following that accident, the players had T-shirts made in honour of No. 38 and rode an emotional wave to upset both Canada and the Czech Republic before claiming silver. “We all know that we’re not playing just for us,” captain Zdeno Chara told me in Helsinki during that event.
A couple years later, the level of grief may have subsided, but the positive memories of Demitra remain strong. Many of the current players were former teammates of his and even those that weren’t have ties to him.
The Vancouver Games were a high point for Demitra, a member of the Canucks at that time, and might have included a gold medal had Roberto Luongo not robbed him with a ridiculous save in the dying moments of the semifinals. As painful as that was to watch back then, it’s transformed into a positive thought for forward Branko Radivojevic because of Demitra’s involvement in the play.
“I was just looking at it a couple weeks ago,” he said. “That moment, that save Luongo made, that was unbelievable.”
The story for the Slovak team this time around is no different than at every major international event. Despite being considered a step or two behind the big boys, they can’t be ruled out entirely – especially if they can find the same emotional level that has worked in the past.
The Games will get off to a good start with Chara electing to skip two Boston Bruins games to carry the flag during Friday’s opening ceremony – “It’s a huge thing for us,” said defenceman Milan Jurcina – and the good vibes could keep on flowing once the puck drops for real.
They need only look back to Vancouver to see the formula needed to have success in a short unpredictable event.
“Everybody got really together and the system worked really well (in 2010),” said Radivojevic. “Pavol, he was playing unbelievable and he was the best player in the tournament. He led by example and everybody went behind.”
Even though he’s now gone, not much has changed.