Ruslan Salei -- a.k.a. ‘Rusty’ -- was more than a hockey player
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Ruslan Salei was unmerciful.
During the Ducks’ early days in Anaheim, back before they had a Stanley Cup banner dangling from the rafters, there were a collection of guys who were easily defined. Paul Kariya was the talent. Teemu Selanne was the heart. Steve Rucchin was Gunga Din, toting the water up and down the ice.
Rusty, meanwhile, could be just plain vicious with his words.
Being cut up by Salei was a rite of passage for a beat writer, or anyone else who wandered through the team’s dressing room. There would be the nod, the verbal jab and the closing smirk ... quick and surgically neat.
Salei died when an airplane carrying the Kontinental Hockey League’s Lokomotiv team crashed Wednesday, killing 43 people. Family and friends of those lost can cut their grief with warm memories. Mine are about a guy who was a friend, even though we could hardly be called close.
Rusty made you feel like a pal, even when the verbal body blows were delivered. He was a regular guy, which is why fans gravitated toward him.
One rainy day after practice, I was cruising through the dressing room, wearing a duster raincoat. Rusty nodded at me and said, ‘Hey, you look like that guy in the movie -- you know, ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer.’ ‘
Meaning matinee idols Freddie Prinze Jr. or Ryan Philippe?
“The guy with the hook,” Salei said, smirking.
Disliking Rusty was impossible.
This was a guy who came from Belarus and learned to speak English from watching television while playing for a minor league team in Las Vegas. Adrian Dater of the Denver Post accurately described the mix of an Eastern Europe accent and ‘Sopranos’ dialect as “Bela-Rooklyn.”
Rusty had panache. He would spot you and nod, saying, ‘How yoooo doin’?’ From that point, you never knew where the conversation would lead.
On one occasion, he told the story of playing hockey with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, whom Salei described as being “elected president for life.”
Salei said he never got near Lukashenko on the ice -- “You weren’t allowed to hit him. There were guys there with guns.”
Guys hated playing against Salei because of his on-ice style. He received a 10-game suspension for driving Mike Modano into the boards on opening night in 1999, and years later he still denied any wrongdoing.
When I brought it up in 2006, he tossed back his catchphrase, “You talkin’ to me?”
I was, and did every chance I could get.
My lasting thought will always be the night I was alone in a St. Louis restaurant when Rusty and two other Ducks players walked by the table. Salei stopped, kicked my chair, and said, “I see you’re havin’ dinner with all your friends. Enjoy.”
Then he was off.
Funny thing, for that second he stopped to zing me, I was there with a friend.
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-- Chris Foster