A decade later it’s not easy to talk about. On September 7, 2011, Vancouver Canucks goalie Jaroslav Halak lost his friend, his countryman, his Slovakian national team captain in the Yaroslavl Lokomotive plane crash. Pavol Demitra was 36-years-old and was headed to what would have been his first ever game in the KHL. The former 9th-round pick of the Ottawa Senators bled character and had developed into a star in the NHL and back home.
“Well … obviously … you know … I know Pavol … it’s ten years now since it happened,” Halak said quietly. “It was tragic and I just wanted to kind of give him a tribute and have him on the helmet, on the back plate.”
So Demitra’s number-38 now dons the back of Halak’s mask-helmet, memorializing the worst memory of his hockey existence. Otherwise, it’s been a career of consistent triumphs with some bizarre moments along the way. Like the time he was waived by the New York Islanders on December 30th, 2016 and sent to the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers to play 27 games.
“We had three goalies going on and I got dealt the bad cards,” Halak recalls, referring to Thomas Greiss and J.F. Berube. “When I got sent down I was on waivers, but it probably wasn’t easy for a team to pick me up because of my contract, I still had a year or two left on my contract. That’s probably why no one took me, but no hard feelings, it’s business, so you just have to move on and do your best.”
Halak bounced back the next season to become the number-one netminder again and play in 54 games, just in time to escape New York. He went from the pre-Lou Lamoriello mess on Long Island to a fresh start in Boston where he’d go 49-23-and-14 over the next three seasons while paired up with number-one Tuukka Rask. The tandem won the William Jennings Trophy in 2020 for having the league’s best goals against average, eight years after Halak had won it in St. Louis as the 1A to Brian Elliot’s 1B. It was the only other time besides this forthcoming season where Halak had to deal with Western Conference travel.
“It’s one of the things, it comes with the team,” Halak said. “There’s no easy way to look at it. You can’t really look at it as difficult, I just want to play hockey. When we go out East it’s a long flight but it doesn’t matter to me.”
Two seasons prior to his award winning effort with the Blues, Halak put on a playoff goaltending performance for the ages, leading the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens to a first-round upset over the heavily favoured, top-seeded Washington Capitals. The Cap’s finished with 121 points that season, Presidents’ Trophy winners, while the Habs finished with 88. It remains the largest point differential for a playoff series upset in NHL history. Neither Halak nor his crease partner Carey Price were necessarily sterling through the first four games of the series, but Halak took over the crease in Games 5, 6, and 7. He turned the “he stood on his head” reference into reality, stopping 131 of 134 shots in winning the final three games.
“That was fun, it was a fun series,” Halak remembers. “Obviously in the first round, being down, then Pittsburgh in the second round, no one gave us a chance, but we made it all the way to the Conference Finals and it was too bad we couldn’t beat Philly. But Philly, they just played tough, they beat Boston in the 2nd round, you remember they were down 3-0 in the series, and came back, even down in Game-7 and they came back and won. It was just one of those things, number-7 team and number-8 team met in the Conference Finals, who would have thought. Just too bad, we just couldn’t match their intensity.”
Halak presently carries a career record of 281 wins, 173 losses, and 62 overtimes. His career GAA is 2.48 and his save percentage is .916. The wins category for him is most important.
“I think my goal, I want to get 300 wins,” he stated. “I’m 19 away, so I want to get to 300 wins, that’s my ultimate goal for now and we’ll see how I go from there.”
So why Vancouver at age-36?
“I think it was the interest they showed right away,” he said. “Clarkie (Canucks Goaltending Coach Ian Clark), he wanted to work with me, and I’m really happy, I’m looking forward to working with him and it seems like we have a really good group over here. We just have to play consistent because I know that every season you go through ups and downs, but it’s one of the things the good teams have, it’s consistency throughout the season. That’s what we want to bring and work on.”
Halak is the Vancouver Canucks oldest player, yet he’s one of a handful here who can represent his country at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing if he so chooses. The competition in the Slovakian net would come from the European leagues and realistically it’s Halak’s gig if he wants it.
“We’ll see what happens,” he stated. “We’ll see if they give me a call to go out there. I just don’t look that far ahead, I just want to go day by day. I just want to have a good season with the group we have here, as best I can, and we’ll see what happens.”
It would mean playing with another legendary Slovakian captain and former Boston, World Cup and national team cohort Zdeno Chara, the oldest player in the entire league at age-44. The two played together for their country at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, finishing fourth. Halak laughs thinking about playing another eight years.
“I don’t think I’ll be one of those guys like ‘Zee’,” Halak said. “I mean that’s really impressive, he’s still in better shape than anybody in the league. So that tells you that age is only a number. Even with me, obviously there are mornings I feel it more than not, even when you’re young. So I think once you get to an older age, more experienced, you just kind of look out for yourself and pace yourself and just be a pro.”
And a dad. Halak moved his wife and two children here, one of which is five-year-old Nathan, who’s just getting into sincere skating efforts for the first time. Dad says son will only play hockey if the latter truly desires it.
In the meantime …
“I just want to have a good season with these guys,” Halak said. “I just want to play out this year, we’ll see how it goes.”