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Slovakia moves on from grief of mourning Demitra, who still has an impact

The Canadian Press

SOCHI, Russia - It has been over two years since Slovakia mourned the death of national hockey legend Pavol Demitra, killed in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash. Yet he remains in the thoughts of players and coaches.

Before the national team left for the Olympics in Sochi, it played one final exhibition game that was followed by a motivational video.

"Pavol Demitra was a big part of it," assistant coach Vladimir Orszagh said. "It was just the goals he scored and the happiness, how happy he was when he scored in the Olympics and how fans after world championship we came back and there was like 20,000 people in the stands waiting for us."

And, of course, Demitra's famous shootout goal against Russia at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. "It was there too, from every angle," Orszagh said.

It's impossible for Slovaks to forget Demitra's role in those Games and his illustrious career internationally and in the NHL. Players even wore T-shirts with Demitra's picture on it when Slovakia made an improbable silver-medal run at the 2012 IIHF world championship.

Much time has passed since then, and though the emotional connection to Demitra is still strong, Slovakia has reached the stage of moving on.

"Pavol is always with us," said former NHL forward Branko Radivojevic, who replaced the injured Marian Gaborik on the Olympic roster. "Everybody think of him, and we remember him. He's a great guy, he's still with us. But we got to look forward."

Looking back four years, Demitra's performance in Vancouver still makes players smile. He had three goals and seven assists in Slovakia's seven games in leading Slovakia to the bronze-medal game.

"Pavol, he was playing unbelievable," Radivojevic said. "He was best player in the tournament. He led by example and everybody went behind him."

Radivojevic was recently watching a replay of Slovakia's near-upset of Canada in 2010 and remembered it fondly.

"Good memories," he said. "It always stay in our heart, and we always remember that moment."

For a small country like Slovakia with a population of just over five million, strong performances like that are hard to forget. That the nation has been able to get to the point where those are more plentiful has a lot to do with Demitra leading the way.

"We knew we can play hockey, and this generation around Pavol Demitra brings the great passion for the hockey again," Orszagh said.

That passion did not leave with Demitra's death at the age of 36.

"His spirit is with us for long time," Orszagh said.

Demitra's spirit and his role as the leader of a generation has been passed to defenceman Zdeno Chara, chosen as Slovakia's flag-bearer for Friday's opening ceremony. Like his teammates, Chara is ready to move past the stage of constantly mourning Demitra.

"I think that part we will never forget and it's always going to be on our minds," Chara said. "But I think that we've all moved on."

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