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Avs start camp with heavy hearts after plane crash that claimed lives of 2 former teammates

Colorado Avalanche hockey player Matt Duchene talks about the upcoming season with reporters in the locker room at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Friday Sept. 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Pat Graham)

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Colorado Avalanche hockey player Matt Duchene talks about the upcoming season with reporters in the locker room at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Friday Sept. 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Pat Graham)

DENVER - Semyon Varlamov is the new goalie in town and already he's bonding with his Colorado Avalanche teammates.

They each know the grief the other is going through.

Varlamov and the Avalanche gathered with heavy hearts Friday as they began training camp more than a week after the plane crash in Russia that claimed the lives of players they knew well.

Former Avalanche players Ruslan Salei and Karlis Skrastins were among the 37 players, coaches and staff of Russia's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club who died when their jet crashed on the way to their first game of the season.

For Varlamov, 23, the tragedy hits even closer to home since he played in the Yaroslavl system before joining the Washington Capitals.

"I'm so sad," said Varlamov, who was traded to Colorado in July. "That was my old team. I played there eight years. I know everybody from the team."

The Avalanche know how he feels. Paul Stastny was roommates with Skrastins for two seasons and Milan Hejduk got to know Salei from the defenceman's time in Denver.

"Such a tough loss," Hejduk said. "A really tough, tough thing."

The Avalanche will honour Salei and Skrastins when they open the season Oct. 8 against the Detroit Red Wings.

Stastny also was close with the family of three-time all-star Pavol Demitra, who died in the crash as well.

"He was one of my role models growing up," Stastny said as the team went through conditioning tests at the Pepsi Center. "The hardest part is I know their wives, I know their kids.

"It's tough to take. You realize how important life is. There's a lot more to life than sports. It's more about family and friends and enjoying every second of it."

Varlamov said hockey will help ease his pain. He's looking forward to the grind of training camp and allowing it to take his mind off the tragedy.

He said he went back to Yaroslavl to comfort family and friends.

"Everybody in Yaroslavl is so sad," he said.

Backup goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere plans to help Varlamov anyway possible, serving as his mentor in net and possibly even his counsellor away from the ice.

"It's a big tragedy," said Giguere, who was recently in Anaheim for a Salei memorial. "It's not a fun subject to talk about. I'm sure everybody grieves in different ways.

"I think getting back to playing hockey and doing what we love should help us forget and move on to something better and nicer."

The recent accident in Russia has some players thinking twice about playing overseas once their NHL careers wind down.

"I have a few buddies that play over thereā€”I guess the planes are not in the best shape, some are OK and some not so good," said Hejduk, who's entering his 13th season. "I'm glad we have really good planes here."

The Russian team was heading to Minsk, Belarus, to play its opening game of the Kontinental Hockey League season when the plane crashed into the Volga River bank shortly after takeoff and burst into flames.

Russian aviation experts said they have come to no conclusions yet about the cause of the crash.

"I knew pretty well about seven guys on the plane that went down," Hejduk said. "It's really hard."

Notes: Avs F Peter Mueller said he's 100 per cent after missing all last season with a concussion. "It's getting better and better each and every day," Mueller said. ... Avs coach Joe Sacco hasn't decided on a captain yet. Stastny and Hejduk will be in the running. ... Sacco said rookies Gabriel Landeskog (No. 2 overall pick) and Duncan Siemens (No. 11) will have to earn roster spots. "They have to come here and show us they're worthy," Sacco said. ... After living with the family of former Avalanche defenceman Adam Foote the last two seasons, F Matt Duchene has moved into his own place.

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