Haunted by sudden death from the sky
By Stu Hackel
The first coherent thought I had when I woke too early this morning was that it would be great for the NHL to have all its teams wear a patch with the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crest on their jerseys during the first weeks of the season to honor the players who perished on Wednesday. Sometimes first thoughts that rise before the sun vanish along with the morning darkness, but this one stuck around.
And then the plane flew over.
On the nights that I have trouble sleeping, the sound I dread most is that of the first flight out from the airport near my house. It means I don't have time to fall back asleep. But when I can't sleep because an air tragedy has shocked me, I dread that sound even more, my mind connecting it with death. I got that dreadful feeling 10 years ago, and it happened again this morning.
Ten years ago, I remember not being able to sleep and hearing jets flying overhead at odd hours, knowing they were military aircraft, the only ones allowed to fly here for a while after 9/11. But it wasn't the fighter jets as much as the notion that death could come from the sky -- the sky for goshsakes! the air we breathe every day -- that got to me.
Even weeks later, when life began slowly rolling forward again, I remember driving to Long Island to have lunch with Scotty Bowman. His Red Wings were playing the Islanders that night, and as I traveled along the Grand Central Parkway, I saw a vast expanse of morning sky. It was dark and roiling, not the brilliant blue of that awful day a month earlier, and I could feel the sky's anger in those threatening gray clouds.
At lunch, we didn't talk much about hockey, but the attacks and what they meant and what might happen next. A few weeks after that, I was in Montreal and an intermission guest on the Canadiens' English radio broadcast. We didn't talk about the game or the season at all. We talked about how New York was bearing up after the attack. And those kinds of discussions went on for years -- and they are still going on.
That is how powerful a tragic event like what occurred on Wednesday can be. I suspect the people of Yaroslavl, who have supported that great Lokomotiv team for over 60 years, and the fans of Russian hockey, and the fans in all the European countries who lost players in the crash, will have the same sort of experience.
I wasn't closely connected with anyone who died on Sept. 11, but I knew many, many people who lost friends and family. I wouldn't dare equate my sense of loss with those more directly affected, but what I felt most personally was that my city, my home, had been attacked and I felt the loss, the deaths and the destruction, quite sharply. And my firm belief is that most New Yorkers felt that exact same way.
I didn't know any of the people who died in Yaroslavl personally, although I certainly had been around some of them at NHL rinks for years. Again, while there's no way to equate my feeling of loss with those who were close to those who died -- SI.com's Darren Eliot wrote today about losing his friend Brad McCrimmon -- what I felt most personally was the huge blow to hockey, the little subculture I've lived in for a few decades. And I believe most hockey fans and people who make their living in the game feel exactly the same way.
So they will honor the Lokomotiv team on Saturday. The KHL will resume play next week, after wisely deciding to postpone the scheduled opening games, and will then figure out how Lokomotiv will go on. But family, friends, fans and many others will, in different ways, have to grapple with this event, this death that came from the sky, for a long time and it will not be easy.
It isn't easy for the blogger Jeff Chick of A Chick's Perspective, whose post from yesterday is a must read, taking us through his agitated emotional landscape as he drives the family of Kārlis Skrastiņš to the Dallas airport, revealing his own distress for his passengers, people he doesn't know. Yes, you should read it. UPDATE: Jeff took this post down. A pity. It was a wonderful piece of writing. UPDATE 2: Jeff's post was copied and reposted, most likely without his knowledge, on what seems to be a Latvian website. Here it is, and don't get discouraged if it takes some time to load. It's well worth the wait.
It isn't easy for my friend and SI colleague Pierre McGuire, who coached McCrimmon and Pavol Demitra and knew many others who were on that plane. On Montreal radio Team 990 yesterday (audio), he could only describe his emotional state as "numb."
It isn't easy for the fans of HV 71, the Swedish Elite League team that goalie Stefan Liv led to three championships. He had been Rookie of the Year, an All-Star, the league's top player and also a national team Olympic gold medalist. The Local, Sweden's English language newspaper, reported that outside Jönköping's Kinnarps Arena, HV 71's home ice, hundreds of fans reportedly gathered Wednesday evening, lighting candles and shedding tears over the loss of a player who, The Local said, had become a symbol for the team and its success. “The atmosphere is very, very sad. Everyone speaks so warmly of him, about what a fantastic person he was and he cared about everyone and was always willing to help,” the newspaper Aftonbladet reported from the scene. “Entire families are standing and hugging each other in grief.”
It isn't easy for Alexei Yashin, who had played two seasons for Lokomotiv but is training in North America, hoping to be signed by an NHL team. There are calls for him to return to Yaroslavl to help rebuild the team, even be its on-ice leader. Through tears, he could not respond to a Sovietsky Sports reporters questions about how willing he'd be to do that, saying only, "The talk now should not be about that, because boys have died, my friends...This is a great tragedy ... I do not think hockey should be at the forefront in this situation....So many guys, my friends..."
It isn't easy for J.T. the blogger of The H Does NOT Stand For Habs a typically fierce fan of her team, just like fans everywhere, who has undergone something of a metamorphosis after this summer of woe in the hockey world. For her, it has been "a catalyst for the betterment of the sport, or at least the way we fans behave toward the sport and its practitioners. I know I can't blame Sidney Crosby for whining to the refs anymore, because I just want to see him play again. I can't hate the Leafs because I think about the Minsk fans who probably hated to see Lokomotiv come to town, and now they're all dead. That stuff goes beyond hockey....I don't want any of the Canadiens to goon it up until his brain is damaged or he becomes addicted to narcotics to handle the pain. I don't want any of them to sit at home feeling so inadequate and helpless that he becomes suicidal....That's a radical shift for a fan who used to only want a Cup, no matter what the cost."
And it certainly wasn't easy for the mother of one of the young Lokomotiv players, Sergei Ostapchuk, who heard the news of her son's death and died from a heart attack. It can't get worse than that.
For family and friends, losing these men is inestimable and the rest of us can only offer them our thoughts and prayers while we confront the fragility and strength of what it is to be human, all the while trying to make sense of how the game we love that so often provides us with a respite from life's hard edge is now part of that edge.
As we learned 10 years ago in a tragedy that also touched the hockey world, these events can scar us. But, as J.T. wrote, they can also make us better. The KHL will learn from this, too. It is already planning changes for the way its teams travel, looking at using safer planes than the suspect 18-year-old Yak-42 that was not allowed to fly in European Union airspace, hoping to never again have death come from the sky.