Red and Black Hockey
by David Lee on 09/07/11 at 06:56 PM ET
It’s a horrible day in the neighborhood. It’s already been a brutal summer for hockey fans. Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, known for their roles as enforcer, all died this summer. All had played as recently as the 2010-11 season. Today, there was a huge tragedy when the entire KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl were lost in a Russian plane crash. Two passengers survived the crash, which occurred shortly after takeoff. All but one Lokomotiv player died. The surviving player, Alexander Galimov, is in serious condition, with burns to over 80% of his body. This is, by far, “the darkest day in the history of our sport”, said Rene Fasel, president of the IIHF.
Today was opening day in the KHL. Only one game was on the docket, and it was in progress at the time of the crash. The league suspended the game and will postpone games scheduled for tomorrow.
Among the dead are several former NHL players. Closest to home, this list includes Josef Vasicek, who would have turned 31 on Monday. He played the majority of his career with the Hurricanes. The entire hockey-loving world is in shock, and I’d be a fool to suggest that this hits us any harder. While we mourn the loss of 43 people, we knew and loved Josef Vasicek, so we mourn especially for him.
Pavol Demitra and Ruslan Salei were much more well-known across the National Hockey League, but closer to home was a hard-working anonymous guy in Joe Vasicek. He wasn’t the best player, by any stretch, but he worked really hard and deserved every break that he got.
Vasicek, known as “The Czech Condor” or “Big Joe”, was drafted 91st overall by the Hurricanes in the fourth round of the 1998 draft. Other Hurricanes picks in that draft included Jeff Hereema (cousin of the Staal boys) in the first round, Erik Cole in the third, Tommy Westlund also in the fourth, and fellow Czech Jaroslav Svoboda in the eighth. After playing two seasons with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL, the big man joined the Hurricanes for the 2000-01 season and never turned back.
The Condor registered 21 (8/13) points in his rookie season, then contributed 31 (14/17) the following season. In a miraculous run to the Stanley Cup finals, he also added 5 (3/2) points in the 2002 playoffs, including a dramatic overtime winner against the Devils in game 5 of the first round.
In the 2002-03 season, Carolina was the worst team in the league. Big Joe dealt with a back spasms all season long and totaled 20 (10/10) points in 57 games. In 2003-04, when the Hurricanes were an improved team, he led the team in points (45) and goals (19). At some point during that season, I picked Vasicek as my favorite player. He wasn’t the most skilled or the most well-known player, but he earned a lot of respect by working hard, crashing the net and treating every shift like it could be his last. Late in the season, I bought a sweater with his name and number. It was my first real sweater, and like a first car or a first girlfriend, that sweater was always special for that reason.
Although I often mocked Vasicek for being big, slow and dumb, he was still my JoVa.
Of course the lockout happened, and Joe played just a few games in the Czech Republic.
In the magical 2005-06 season, Vasicek dealt with a lot of injuries and was limited to 23 games. I wore that Vasicek sweater all season long, and made some good friends because of it. I felt like other folks who wore the Vasicek sweater were cooler than people with Brind’Amour sweaters or Cole sweaters or even Francis sweaters. Vasicek wearers were “in the know”.
He managed just 9 (4/5) points. Perhaps because of his health and perhaps because he got caught in a numbers game, Vasicek appeared in only 8 playoff games, earning no points. Just before heading out to Stanley Cup Final game 7, I wrote a post about how Josef Vasicek was the cosmic reason that Carolina was going to win the Cup. I had worn the Vasicek 63 sweater all season long. I had 63 days of playoff beard growth. There had to be a connection. While I may or may not believe that the convergence of 63s had anything to do with anything, it helped calm my nerves as I drove to the RBC Center that night.
In the summer of 2006, Vasicek was traded to the Predators for Scott Walker. In February of the ensuing season, the Canes got Vasicek back in exchange for Eric Belanger. He had a mediocre finish to the season, tallying 9 (2/7) points in 25 games as a Hurricane. In the summer of 2007, he was signed as a free agent by the Islanders.
JoVa tallied 35 (16/19) points for the Islanders in 2007-08, and never returned to the NHL. I say, though, that Taylor Hall looks exactly like Big Joe.
Last season, The Condor scored 55 (24/31) points in 54 regular season games for Lokomotiv and added 22 (7/15) in 18 playoff games.
Big Joe will be deeply missed by hockey fans everywhere, but especially by Canes fans. Our thoughts and condolences go to his family and friends. Also to the families of the other passengers aboard that plane.
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David Lee is a restaurant manager with an unused degree in political science. He can be found at Carolina Hurricanes games, Scrabble tournaments and indie-rock shows. Sometimes, all in the same day.