ST. LOUIS An ovation began before Vera Korolev completed her walk onto the ice. She knew the upcoming ceremony would be another opportunity to heal. The moment made her cry.
A spotlight followed her approach from a tunnel, her eyes focused on the dark-blue carpet ahead. Two months had passed since her husband and former St. Louis Blues center, Igor Korolev, was one of 44 people killed when a Russian jet carrying members of a Kontinental Hockey League team crashed into a radar tower shortly after takeoff northeast of Moscow. He was 41. He was gone too soon.
Vera and her two daughters, Kristina and Anastasia, stepped to the side of a podium. Behind them, a line of former Blues players wearing white jerseys stood in support. Throughout the darkened Scottrade Center, Blues and Chicago Blackhawks fans rose together in applause.
Vera held a bouquet of pink, purple and yellow flowers against a black leather jacket. She glanced toward a videoboard above that showed an image memorializing her husband's career. Kristina and Anastasia stayed close to their mother's shoulders. Vera nodded and held back tears.
On Tuesday, memories of Igor Korolev and Pavol Demitra, 36, were honored before St. Louis' 3-0 victory over Chicago. Both were former Blues players who died in the Sept. 7 accident. A night labeled "Never Forgotten" gave everyone present a chance to remember once more.
"It's such a tragedy for everybody," Vera said later in the night. "It's very touching that people still remember."
Flashbulbs popped when former Blues captain Brett Hull approached a microphone early in the ceremony. The Hall of Famer began by speaking about how he always loves returning to St. Louis, where he played from 1988 to 1998. However, this trip held a melancholy meaning. He had lost a friend.
"I come here," Hull said to the crowd, "with a very heavy heart."
With those emotions, Hull reflected on Korolev's growth. The Blues selected the young Russian in the second round of the 1992 NHL Entry Draft. Korolev had 10 goals and 33 assists in 147 games with the organization from 1992 to 1994.
Beyond the numbers, Hull praised Korolev's presence as a teammate. He complimented Korolev's work ethic and warm smile, traits that allowed the 22-year-old rookie to ease into NHL life.
Hull also remembered Korolev as personable. Hull recalled an evening when Korolev taught teammates a lesson in Russian culture. Vodka became a topic of conversation one night at dinner during Korolev's rookie season. The Moscow native insisted dill pickles were a perfect complement.
"He was a great man who cared about people," Hull said in his speech.
"So long, my friend."
Soon after, master of ceremonies John Kelly read a letter from Demitra's wife, Maja, who was unable to attend. Demitra joined the Blues before the 1996-97 season, his first of eight with the organization.
Maja's message thanked the Blues and their fans for support during a trying time. She called the years she and her husband spent in St. Louis "beautiful." Their memories were shared.
"He used to say that his best NHL years were in St. Louis," Maja's letter read, "because everything was just perfect."
Later, former Blues winger Keith Tkachuk addressed the crowd about Demitra's legacy. Demitra finished with 204 goals and 289 assists in 494 games in St. Louis. But, to Tkachuk, his teammate's production only revealed part of an attractive personality.
Tkachuk remembered Demitra as a true friend, a proud husband and a model father. (Demitra's kids, Lucas and Zara, also were absent Tuesday.) Tkachuk said he will always treasure a relationship that enriched his life.
"Some guys I'll never forget, because they were just good guys who made me laugh and made me proud to be a hockey player, guys I just wanted to be around," Tkachuk said to the crowd. "Pavol Demitra was one of those guys. Pavol was brilliant with the puck. He played with purpose, and he played with joy."
Later, when the tribute was over, Vera and the former Blues players walked off the ice. They gathered in a hallway deep in the Scottrade Center and posed for a picture. Each person present had gathered for a somber reason, but memories of Korolev and Demitra made them smile.
Vera paused before approaching an elevator. Behind her, sights and sounds from the first period had begun. Life had moved on. There would be difficult days ahead. But she will never forget. Her husband's impact lives.
"It will always be in your heart," she said before walking away. "His career was as much a part of me."