By Stu Hackel
The KHL season restarts today, but without Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. The team will not be reformed this season with new players in the wake of last Wednesday's air disaster in which the entire roster perished. Instead, the newly created Lokomotiv will resume play next season.
That was the decision announced Saturday by Vladimir Yakunin, the head of Russian Railways, the team's owner; Yuri Yakovlev, Lokomotiv team president; and Sergei Vakhrukov, the governor of the Yaroslav region, as reported by Sovietsky Sport on Sunday.
"We must show sensitivity and awareness," said Yakunin.
"The whole world mourns with us," added Yakovlev. "In these difficult times we must act correctly, observing all the universal values and those of the club. Our primary task is to take care of loved ones, families of the victims. That is conduct worthy of the guys who were on their last journey."
The three officials addressed reporters briefly after the funeral for the players that was held at the club's arena in Yaroslavl on Saturday. About 100,000 people, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, gathered in and around the building to pay their respects to the team. "For the first time in my life, I had trouble entering an ice arena," KHL chairman and former NHL star Slava Fetisov said. "It's an inexplicable tragedy."
In addition to the services in Yaroslavl, memorial services for the victims were also conducted in Minsk, where the Lokomotiv players were headed to play the opening game of their season last Thursday. Minsk players skated on the ice through portraits of the lost Lokomotiv players while the fans who filled the arena chanted, "Loko! Loko!"
On Monday, top government and KHL officials affirmed the no-play decision and said that a team in the VHL, the top Russian development league, would have a Lokomotiv club this season, beginning play in December. That team would be guaranteed a playoff spot regardless of its record at season's end.
They also said next season's Lokomotiv team in the KHL would also be guaranteed a playoff berth and may request a waiver from the rule that restricts league teams from having only six non-Russian players on the squad.
In explaining their decision on Saturday not to have Lokomotiv play this season in the KHL, the officials added that they also believed it would better serve the memories of those who died if they took the time needed to rebuild a competitive team, rather than quickly assemble one to play Yaroslavl's 2011-12 schedule.
"We do not have to hurry," said Yakunin, who added that the team should be restored to its previous level of strength before returning to the ice. "Lokomotiv is not just the players and club. It is the team's spirit, a culture that has arisen around the club in Yaroslavl and in our country."
"We'll make it," said Yakolev. "But we must carefully observe the traditions that have always distinguished our Lokomotiv. We are confident that Yaroslavets support us in difficult times. And together, we can revive your favorite team."