In Slovakia, the weekend should have been a festival of hockey as Lev Poprad joined the KHL. Instead it became a solemn commemoration of one of the country’s greatest sporting sons, killed in the Yaroslavl air crash.
Seemingly every bar in Bratislava had its little shrine to Pavol Demitra, captain of the national hockey team and hero to countless fans across the central European country. While Demitra had not played for a local team since heading to the NHL in the early 90s, his exploits in the national cause made him a hugely popular figure. Many Slovak hockey fans talked of how the prospect of seeing him come back home to play for Lokomotiv against Lev Poprad later this season was one of the big thrills of seeing the country compete in the KHL.
That dream lies shattered, and a country is struggling to come to terms with the loss. On Saturday, three days after the plane crash which almost wiped out the Lokomotiv team, Slovakia’s newspapers were still full of reports and features about Demitra and his team-mates. Pull-out posters came with every edition, while pages were devoted to the player’s career.
Then there were the impromptu shrines which sprung up at almost every corner: from the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace, where bemused British tourists, unfamiliar with the European passion for hockey, mingled with mourning fans bearing candles and signing the book of remembrance. The scene was repeated on a larger scale outside the Zimny Stadion, home of Slovan Bratislava, the country’s most successful hockey club. Here an ever growing circle of candles had been lit beneath a picture of Demitra. As one ring burned down, another came to take its place, producing an ever-expanding radius of light in memory of the lost player.
And it wasn’t just the hockey world which was in mourning. At the weekend’s football games a minute’s silence was observed impeccably, then – in an inspired touch – the 38th minute of each game was cue for a minute’s applause in tribute to Demitra, who played for Slovakia in a number 38 jersey. At the Slovan – Nitra game the fans unleashed a stream of tickertape and set off fireworks in memory of the player.
But away from the official commemorations, it was the low-key reminders of the tragedy which showed how deeply Slovakia was feeling its loss. Almost every bar, every café, every shop displayed a photo of Demitra, with a candle and a note of sympathy. The season will go on – Lev opens its campaign on Monday evening against Metallurg Magnitogorsk and the Slovak league starts up later this week – but in this hockey-crazy country there can be no doubt that there is more to the tributes to Demitra than merely empty words.