By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
Marek Hrbas stood in a hallway at Interior Savings Centre on Thursday afternoon, the Kamloops Blazers’ practice having just ended.
His eyes looked skyward but it was apparent that he wasn’t seeing anything.
“I still can’t believe that,” he said in a quiet voice.
The loss of three countrymen in Wednesday’s plane crash in Russia still was fresh enough in the young Czech defenceman’s mind that it was causing him pain.
“I knew Jan Marek,” Hrbas said. “I worked out with him.”
Marek, 31, was a forward on the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team that was wiped out in a crash on the banks of the Volga River near Yaroslavl, 240 kilometres northeast of Moscow.
The crash also claimed the lives of Czech defenceman Karel Rachunek, 32, and forward Josef Vasicek, who was five days away from his 30th birthday.
Vasicek played on the Czech team at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver; Marek and Rachunek were on the Czech team that won the 2010 world championship.
In other words, these players were national heroes.
Hundreds of people showed up in Prague’s Old Town Square last night to honour the victims. Many wore national team jerseys, carried Czech flags and lit candles around an impromptu monument formed by two hockey sticks. They chanted the names of the three Czech victims and signed condolence books for them.
“They won gold medals. It’s huge . . . it’s a huge deal over there,” Hrbas said. “It’s so sad. The news is talking about it all day every day.”
Hrbas, who is from Plzen, said he and Marek employed the same agent, which is how they ended up working out together in Prague.
“He was a very good guy. He was a lot of fun,” Hrbas recalled. “A lot of smiles . . . great guy. I still can’t believe that.”
But, as Hrbas knows, life goes on, so he and the Blazers will face the Kelowna Rockets tonight, 7 o’clock, at Interior Savings Centre in a WHL exhibition game and again Saturday at Prospera Place in the Little Apple.
The Blazers are 1-1, having beaten the visiting Victoria Royals 4-2 and then lost 6-3 to the host Vancouver Giants. The Rockets are 2-0, having won twice at home, 4-3 in overtime over the Giants and 7-2 over the Royals.
With some NHL teams opening rookie camps this weekend, both Kamloops and Kelowna are likely to be down in numbers.
The Blazers will be without defencemen Josh Caron (Minnesota Wild) and Austin Madaisky (Columbus Blue Jackets), as well as forwards Jordan DePape (Winnipeg Jets), Chase Schaber and Colin Smith (Edmonton Oilers), Dylan Willick (Minnesota) and Brendan Ranford (Philadelphia Flyers).
Right-winger J.T. Barnett doesn’t leave to join the New Jersey Devils until Tuesday, so will be available for weekend duty.
The Rockets, meanwhile, also have eight players going to NHL camps — goaltender Adam Brown (Edmonton Oilers), defencemen Tyson Barrie (Colorado Avalanche) and Colton Jobke (Minnesota), and forwards Jessey Astles (Pittsburgh Penguins), Brett Bulmer (Minnesota), Mitchell Callahan and Zach Franko (Detroit Red Wings), and Shane McColgan (New York Rangers).
Hrbas, 18, was acquired by the Blazers from the Edmonton Oil Kings in June. Kamloops is hoping his prowess with the puck will help it spend less time in its zone this season. It also is hoped that he can spark the power play.
“I like to play on the power play,” he said. “I just love it.”
He also is loving it in Kamloops.
“I like it a lot, more than in Edmonton,” he said, channelling his inner Chris Pronger. Then, with a chuckle, Hrbas added: “It was too cold for me there. I like this weather.”
With Caron and Madaisky gone, and with Landon Cross nursing a sore hip, Hrbas knows he will play a lot this weekend. And that doesn’t bother him.
“It’s not that bad,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to the game (tonight). I like lots of ice time.”
JUST NOTES: Blazers trainer Colin Robinson said the medical staff had cleared DePape to join the Winnipeg Jets. DePape has been bothered by a hip flexor. “The doctor says he’s good to go,” Robinson said, “and we’re not going to hold him back.” . . . Kamloops G Cam Lanigan was felled late in practice yesterday when he took a high, hard one off the collarbone. If the coaching staff sticks to its rotation, Lanigan and Taran Kozun will be the goaltenders tonight. . . . Two young Kelowna defencemen — Jesse Lees and Madison Bowey — have been getting rave reviews. Lees, from Calgary, was the ninth pick in the 2010 bantam draft. He will turn 16 on Wednesday. Bowey, from Winnipeg, was the 23rd selection in 2010. . . . D Brendon Nash, who spent last season with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs and got into two games with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, skated with the Blazers yesterday.
— With a file from The Associated Press
Taking Note on Twitter