If you were to sum up the St. Louis Blues franchise in two words, you may choose “loss” and “crash.” In a literal sense, the team has lost often enough that the 2019 Stanley Cup erased many many years of frustration in St. Louis. Crash is how those Blues teams lost over the years — like the time they won the Presidents’ Trophy after a dominant season. They would be forced to exit the playoffs unceremoniously. They have been good over the years, produced plenty of stars, but the season always seems to come crashing down on the Blues.
In 2021, those two ugly words took a tragic turn when longtime Blue Bobby Plager died on U.S. 64/40 on his way to a PR event for the team. Plager was nothing but good PR — an old school player who charmed the ladies, and reveled the boys with his raw tales of 1970s hockey. He was Slapshot before Slapshot. His death shocked the team, the city and the league. He was as beloved as any former Blue has ever been.
In the 1970s, promising star Bob Gassoff lost his life in a motorcycle accident at the farm of teammate Garry Unger. Gassoff’s name hangs in the rafters at Enterprise Center, and his death still rocks the town. There is nary a bad word about him, who scored 11 goals and added 47 assists in his shortened, four-year career in the NHL. Truth be told, he had a mean streak, and his form was cut right from that same hockey cult classic — Slapshot. His death too soon cemented his place in Blues lore. Not bad for a four-year journeyman. (‘Bob Gassoff of Hockey Blues Dies in Motorcycle Accident,’ New York Times, 5/30/77).
The most shocking death the Blues have experienced may very well be the plane crash that killed fan-favorite Pavol Demitra. He was traveling to Slovakia to play in an international tournament when the plane crashed, killing all but one aboard. Lubos Bartecko was not just a teammate of Demitra’s, he was more like a surrogate little brother. To this day, Bartecko talks about the utmost respect he had for his fellow countryman even after his death.
“He is going to live on forever,” Bartecko said in June on the Bluenote Fan Report podcast, a fan-based media site.
The Russian Roomies
Bartecko was a central figure in Demitra’s life. When the young Bartecko flew on a plane with the star Slovak as a young player, all his teammates were agog at the sight of Demitra, a bona fide NHL talent, just hanging out in the back of the plane. Just a regular guy, Bartecko recalled. Eventually, Demitra would rescue Bartecko from his life in the DoubleTree Hotel in nearby Chesterfield Valley. That hotel room had become his home for three long weeks.
“Pavol came to me and said, ‘Hey won’t don’t you live me with me?'”
From that moment on, Baretcko and Demitra became not just teammates, but friends and brothers to each other.
The day of the crash, “He was coming to play us — our team,” Bartecko told the Bluenote Fan Report. “In fact, he texted me from the plane as he was ready to take off. He had a lot of family coming to the game, so he wanted to make sure the box was all set up. I was walking to my car, and he was just sitting on the plane as it was taking off. As I was leaving, a teammate ran after me, and said, ‘Did you hear about the crash?’ And I hadn’t.”
Details emerged and soon Bartecko learned the worst about his friend and others on the plane.
“I panicked. He was like a brother to me,” Bartecko recalled. “So, I picked up my phone and started calling it. I couldn’t believe it. I kept calling and calling and no answer, no answer. It was a shock. It was like losing your family member,” he said.
Meet Me In St. Louis
Bartecko played in the NHL from 1998-2003. He played three years for the Blues and another two years with the Atlanta Thrashers. The native of Kezmarok, Czechoslovakia, played left wing and had his best years when paired in St. Louis with Demitra and fellow countryman Michael Handzus. Bartecko played in 179 games with the Blues and scored 26 goals and added 42 assists.
“The years I played with (Demitra and Handzus) were my best years as a Blue,” Bartecko said. “That line was really something. When we clicked it was great. Everyone on that line had a role. Demitra was net-front, and Zeus was probably the best center I had every played with. My role was to buzz around, be strong on the forecheck, play hard and get the puck to Pavol and Zeus. It was the best time I have ever had playing hockey.”
Bartecko also credits the Hall of Fame defensive duo of Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis for setting the young forwards up for success.
“I mean, they were the best D-men in the league. I enjoyed playing with those guys and had a lot of success. And they were fun to watch.”
“In eight seasons with the Blues, Demitra had 493 points, the fifth-most in club history,” according to a September 2001 article in the Post-Dispatch. Included in that total were 204 goals, sixth-most all-time. But while his personal achievements ranked near the top, it was his infectious personality and humble character friends were remembering Wednesday after it was confirmed that Demitra was one of 43 people killed when a jet carrying his Russian hockey team crashed shortly after takeoff.
“He was a superstar,” former Blue Tyson Nash told the Post-Dispatch. “He was one of the best players that ever played in St. Louis, as far as talent goes and skill-wise, and you’d never know it. For a superstar, he was the must humble person I’d ever met. He didn’t have an ego.”
“He was a great friend and great teammate,” Matt Keator, a former Blues scout who was Demitra’s agent, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “He was always the type to bring people together.” (‘Demitra recalled as ‘superstar’ without an ego,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9/8/11)
The crash, the Post-Dispatch reported, involved the entire team of players, coaches and front office personnel. “Lokomotiv, which plays in the Kontinental Hockey League, was departing for today’s season opener when its chartered jet wrecked into a riverbank on the Volga River near the western city of Yaroslavl, about 150 miles northeast of Moscow. Russian media reported that the jet had struggled to gain altitude and crashed into a signal tower.
“Twenty-seven players, two coaches, seven club officials and seven crew members perished. Another former Blue, Igor Korolev, an assistant coach with Lokomotiv, was among the dead. Two survivors were listed in grave condition.”
Demitra left behind a young mother in his wife Maria with two young children, Lucas and Zara. Bartecko said he often reaches out to his widow, but has given her as much space and long-distance support she needed. He pointed out the number of players, coaches, friends and fans who reached out to her and gave her support during this tragic time was beyond incredible.
Demitra himself was the son of sports royalty so to speak, as his father was an accomplished pro soccer player in Slovakia. Demitra was said to have impressive skills, but it was hockey that lured his focus. Now, things have come full circle as his son Lucas is one of the top youth players in Slovakia and has a bright international future ahead of him, Bartecko said. His daughter Zara, whom he barely knew, just recently celebrated her Sweet 16 Birthday surrounded by family and friends, Bartecko said.
“When I see pictures of the family, they all look really happy,” Bartecko said.
Playing alongside his countrymen Demitra and Handzus, coupled with the solid play of defensemen MacInnis and Pronger, Bartecko said he felt like he was living the dream every night of his career. The veteran players were approachable and professional and only had one focus — to win that elusive Cup. They never did.
And while the 2019 St. Louis team crashed the Boston Bruins’ Stanley Cup parade by winning that series, Bartecko said he was filled with a decent amount of alumni pride. But make no mistake, that Cup is theirs and theirs alone. Though he played for the Blues, the Cup was the result of the efforts of that group of players, and he respects that.
“It’s their Cup — they won it,” he said. “They deserved it. They earned it.”
The sad postscript to this tale for Demitra is that he never did hoist a Stanley Cup over the course of his 16-year career. He came close several times, but like a current unnamed Russian star who plays for the Blues, he too suffered from scoring droughts in the playoffs. When he died, the team retired his No. 38 jersey, and gave it the rightful place in the rafters at Enterprise Center with other retired players.
Today, Bartecko is a youth coach in the Nashville area where he coaches his teenage son. Handzus spent 15 years in the NHL playing for six different teams. He had 198 goals and 298 assists in 1,009 games. Demitra, for his role, will go down as arguably one of the fans’ top-five Blues players of all time. He was beloved while he was playing, but became a legend upon his tragic death. Lubos Bartecko had a front-row seat to it all.
“No matter what level he played or what team he played on, Pavol was always the best player on the ice. Always.”
Rob Staggenborg covers the St. Louis Blues for TheHockeyWriters.com, as well as hosting several NHL podcasts. He enjoys St. Louis style pizza with gooey cheese, and sitting for hours on end in metro St. Louis traffic listening to sports podcasts. He is a proud U.S. veteran. Visit his website at brockbanner.com
Follow his Blues coverage at STLFanReport.com and on Twitter @RealBrockBanne1