Igor Korolev scored 119 goals and 346 points in 795 career NHL games. (Ian Tomlinson /Allsport)
It was widely reported coach Brad McCrimmon was the only Canadian among the dead when the plane carrying members of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crashed shortly after takeoff. That was technically true, but there was another proud Canadian on that flight who perished as well.
Former NHLer Igor Korolev, who was McCrimmon’s assistant and was also killed in the crash, became a Canadian citizen in 2000 when he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs. And that was a good thing because anyone who ever encountered him would be proud to include Korolev among his citizenry.
Of the 43 people who perished when the Yak-42 crashed in Russia, I had personal experiences with only two of them – former Maple Leafs Korolev and Alexander Karpovtsev, who were both assistant coaches with Yaroslavl. I covered both of them on a daily basis as a beat writer for The Toronto Star and found both of them to be very decent men and, in their own ways, valuable hockey players. After watching Korolev play four years and Karpovtsev two with the Maple Leafs, it came as no surprise to me that both of them were coaching.
Korolev was quiet and introspective, but he was also a wonderful guy who was engaging and interesting once the cameras and tape recorders were turned off. After being claimed on waivers by the Winnipeg Jets in 1995, Korolev pursued Canadian citizenship along with his wife after his children were born here. While he was preparing to take the citizenship test, he would often engage the media in discussions about Canadian politics. He took his duties as a citizen of Canada seriously and was proud of his adopted country.
By the time he joined the Leafs, he had carved a niche as a third-line player and able penalty-killer. He certainly knew both ends of the ice well enough to excel defensively and score 20 goals for the Leafs one season. And in a dressing room that could have been fractured by the fact there were as many as five Russians on the team at the time, Korolev was a binding force. He was also a team leader among the Russian Maple Leaf players that included Dmitry Yushkevich, Danny Markov, Sergei Berezin and Karpovtsev.
It has long been known that some young Russian players have figured out they can get out of things such as talking to the media and making public appearances by not letting on that their grasp of the English language is very good. Korolev, for one, would not allow that to happen with Markov and told him as much during Markov’s rookie season with the Leafs.
In Karpovtsev, the Leafs got a Stanley Cup winner and a terrific defensive defenseman when they acquired him from the New York Rangers in exchange for Mathieu Schneider in 1998. Prior to coming to Toronto, Karpovtsev had a reputation for being brittle. And while he missed his fair share of games with the Leafs, he struck me as the kind of guy who would never hesitate to step in front of a slapshot or battle for possession in the corner.
And his hockey IQ was off the charts. He always seemed to be in perfect defensive position and thought the game on a higher level than most. During one game against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Leafs were killing a penalty and were forced to take a draw deep in their own end against Ron Francis, who at the time was one of the top faceoff men in the league. Prior to the puck being dropped, Karpovtsev gently nudged his centerman out of the faceoff circle and took the draw himself. His thinking was that regardless of who took the faceoff, the Leafs would likely lose it and if that were the case, by taking the draw he would at least have body position on Francis in front of the net.
And while he was also very quiet, he was a proud player as well. One time I wrote a generally positive feature on him, but pointed out his slapshot from the point was pretty weak. That day he pulled me aside in the dressing room and asked if I knew he once won the hardest shot in the New York Rangers skills competition.
What makes this even more tragic was Korolev died one day after his 41st birthday, while Karpovtsev was the same age.
I can’t help but think they, and their teammates, had so much more to give.
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