There's a lightness to Ales Kotalik now, a state of ease that was evident throughout the opening day of Buffalo Sabres training camp Saturday.
It was there when he casually talked with coaches between drills. The relaxed nature shined through when he munched an apple and joked with bystanders while a Zamboni resurfaced the ice. His peace was clear as he smiled and shadowboxed with teammates and equipment managers standing on the other side of the glass at the Northtown Center rink.
Unfortunately for Kotalik, the serene persona he now carries is the result of a horrific event that stole the lives of three friends and made his world come to a halt.
Three of Kotalik's close pals from the Czech Republic played for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, the Russian league team that was decimated when its plane crashed Sept. 7. Jan Marek, Karel Rachunek and Josef Vasicek were among the 44 who died, leaving Kotalik heartbroken and stunned.
"That's just an unreal, devastating tragedy that happened," Kotalik said. "Back home, I can tell you that time stopped the week it happened. Nobody was really able to do anything else or think of anything else.
"My great friends: It's been really tough, and still it is. It's always in the back of your mind."
The sadness surely won't leave any time soon, but Kotalik has chosen to overwhelm it with positivity.
"I'm looking at things a little differently now with all those tragic things that happened back home in Russia," he said. "I lost three really good friends on that flight, and you see things in a different light, different perspective. I want to have fun, enjoy things. I'm just happy being around people I like and I know."
Sabres teammate Thomas Vanek knows the feeling. He and Vasicek were connected through marriage, with Vanek's brother married to Vasicek's sister.
"He was a good man," Vanek said Saturday. "He was a great uncle to my sister-in-law and my brother's daughter. Overall, he just loved hockey, competed hard, won a Stanley Cup, won world championships, did a lot of good things in the community and just loved the sport."
Though Vanek wasn't as ready as Kotalik to open up about the tragedy just 10 days after it happened, the Sabres' top goal scorer has clearly been affected in many ways.
"We all know it's awful, and you try to move on and just remember how good life is," Vanek said. "When you have a bad day, just look at something like that and your bad day is a good day. It brings you closer to the friends and family that you do have because you realize it can be over any day."
The hope that the devastation can create a positive in the short term rests with Kotalik. His first stint with the Sabres, from 2001 to '09, had its share of down moments. He brooded about his game at times, getting disappointed when things didn't go smoothly.
With his new mind-set to enjoy life through all its twists and turns, the 32-year-old's skills may flourish.
"It's really special to have a chance to be part of this," Kotalik said. "It kind of is like coming home. After the first couple days and week I spent with the guys, we started to feel like I never left. It's probably the best thing in this situation that can happen to me, and now it's up to me to show that I can still be good for this team and make things happen."
Kotalik, acquired in a trade with Calgary following a season spent mostly injured or in the minors, figures to spend training camp in a four-way competition for a roster spot. With 11 forward spots all but locked up -- centers Derek Roy, Ville Leino, Paul Gaustad and Jochen Hecht; right wings Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford, Patrick Kaleta and Brad Boyes; and left wings Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe and Vanek -- the last remaining starting job could come down to Kotalik, Cody McCormick, Matt Ellis or Luke Adam, with the second-place finisher sticking in a reserve role.
"I've got to believe in myself. I hope that I will be on this team and I feel I will do good things for this team," said Kotalik, who will continue to carry his loss but will also carry on. "You just want to enjoy spending time, having fun, because you never know what can happen."