By Stu Hackel
They had bright hopes for a new season. They rolled down the runway, taking off for their opening game, which was to be played the next evening in Minsk. The entire playing roster, plus four members of the youth team as well as the coaching and training staffs were on board, as was a crew of eight. Their plane ran off the runway before takeoff, didn't gain much altitude, hit a signal tower and fell into the Volga River just over a mile from the Tunoshna Airport. All but one person, a flight attendant, were killed.
Friday marks the first anniversary of the worst tragedy ever to hit the hockey world, the Yaroslavl plane crash in which 37 members of the Lokomotiv KHL team perished . A silent march through the streets of Yaroslavl, a true hockey town long devoted to the club, will mark the occasion. But Thursday, the re-formed Lokomotiv team returns to playing its KHL season opener, visiting Sibir Novosibirsk.
UPDATE: With three second period goals, Lokomotiv defeated Sibir 5-2. More details below.
The crash capped the Awful Offseason of 2011, which included the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. Among those lost in the disaster was the team's new coach, Brad McCrimmon, a very popular former NHL player and assistant coach who was about to make his debut as a professional bench boss. Assistant coach Alexander Karpovtsev played for five NHL teams over 12 seasons and was among the quartet of Russians on the 1994 Rangers who became their country's first Stanley Cup champions. Another assistant, Igor Korolev, also put in a dozen seasons with a quintet of clubs. He was just beginning his coaching career and, like McCrimmon, had his sights set on returning to North America to work behind the bench in the NHL.
Also gone: Pavol Demitra -- veteran NHLer, cornerstone of Slovak hockey, hero in his country and a Lady Byng Trophy winner -- as well as former NHLers Ruslan Salei, Karel Rachůnek, Karlis Skrastinš, Josef Vasicek, Alexander Vasyunov, and former draft picks Stefan Liv (Red Wings), Robert Dietrich (Predators), Jan Marek (Rangers), Vitaly Anikienko (Senators), Daniil Sobchenko (Sharks) and Ivan Tkachenko (Blue Jackets), as well as Sergei Ostapchuk, who played two years in the Quebec Major Junior League. Of course, there were other players we in North American didn't know. Some people believe it was the most talented Lokomotiv team ever assembled. We'll never know.
Shattered as well was the close bond between the people of Yaroslavl -- who had strongly supported their club since its founding in 1959 -- and the team, which had won three championships in Russia's top league between 1997 and 2003, and numerous other trophies.
Reverberating from this city a few hours' drive from Moscow, the event left the entire hockey community reeling. While those who had a personal relationship with the victims suffered deeply, even those with little or no connection felt the pain. In a post after the crash, I wrote," 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."
Tragedies like this always leave us helpless. In Yaroslavl, the impromptu floral, candle and picture tributes filled the grounds around Arena 2000, but what could we do -- especially an ocean and a continent away? I hoped the NHL and KHL would devise a way to sell Lokomotiv hats to us in North America, with proceeds going to the victims' families. It wasn't much, but it would be a small expression of how we felt. But the KHL, it seems, is still a bit behind on licensed merchandise. Some NHL players' wives sold bracelets in league arenas and over the internet with the money going to the families. That was good. I did find a Lokomotiv T-shirt on eBay, but I'm a hat guy and really wanted one I could wear every day. I just now found a Loko memorial ballcap, which I've ordered and will happily wear. Those of you searching for a way to protest the current standstill in the NHL's CBA negotiations might consider not wearing or buying any of your team's gear for a while and instead purchase a Lokomotive hat or shirt. You can think of it as a protest, but it's also a tribute to Yaroslavl, the people and their team.
The KHL responded to the destruction of the Lokomotiv club by delaying the start of its 2011-12 season, then planning how to get the team back in business. It's KHL return was postponed until this season but, in December of last year, it pulled together a lower league development club, beginning the Lokomotiv rebuild and providing fans with a team that would again wear the Loko sweater, a team they could cheer for.
The fans will return. Reports say that over half their seats have been snapped up by season ticket holders, a higher rate than in previous years. Answering the call to return top-level hockey to Yaroslavl, another raft of familiar names have signed with the new Lokomotiv, hoping to revive some of the club's glory. On paper, it's a good roster with former NHLers Viktor Kozlov, Niklas Hagman, Staffan Kronwall (Niklas's younger brother), goalie Curtis Sanford (reportedly out for a month after being injured in a preseason game), Sami Lepisto, Evgeny Korolev, Mark Flood and Vitaly Vishnevsky (who previously played two seasons for Loko). Also joining up is Miķelis Rēdlihs, a KHL star for Dinamo Riga and member of the Latvian national team.
AllHockey.ru called this edition of Lokomotiv the most intriguing team in the KHL this season.
Part of that intrigue comes from their coach, Tom Rowe, another former NHLer -- in fact, he was the first U.S.-born player to reach the 30-goal mark in an NHL season when he bagged 31 for the Capitals in 1978-79. After hanging up his skates, Rowe worked in various capacities for the Whalers/Hurricanes organization. I ran into him occasionally in press boxes when he scouted for Hartford. He's got a bright hockey mind, but this particular challenge comes equipped with some serious added emotions.
“It’s a huge inspiration," Rowe told the KHL's website. "I knew Brad McCrimmon very well and we have to ensure we have a very good season. We want to make the team and the city proud. There’s an incredible fan base, and the team and the organization has a lot to live up to.”
Michael Zislis of Sports-Express is more circumspect than his colleagues at Allhockey.ru. "Unprecedented hype reigns in Yaroslavl," he wrote this week. "For the entire next season, Lokomotiv is unwittingly doomed to comparison with the lost team, which was considered by its potential, probably the strongest in the history of Yaroslavl hockey. And fans will be extremely biased in their judgement of these beginners, remembering the former favorite, the prematurely deceased."
Zislis wonders if Rowe will install an NHL-style defense-first system in an effort to compete in the strengthened Western Conference, and is concerned that the team will "sit at the gate" and "not exactly be the railroad."
If early indications hold true, Lokomotiv will play in numerous friendly arenas this season. At a late August preseason tournament in Riga, the local fans chanted "Loko! Loko! Loko!" when the reconstituted club took the ice. Of course, once the game started, the cheers were for the home side.
UPDATE: As was the case in Riga, the fans in Novosibirsk gave Lokomotiv a rousing welcome with chants of "Loko! Loko! Loko!" when the visitors came on the ice, and again after a moment of silence for those who died a year ago. This time the outcome was different. Kronwall, the game's first star, had two goals, including the game-winner, and an assist. "We had a very good game," Rowe said. "We played a lot of young guys. At first we were a little nervous, and made a lot of unforced errors. But then we caome together. In general, it was a very good team game." Sovietsky Sport reported a handful of Yaroslavl fans traveled the 2,100 miles east to Novosibirsk dressed in Lokomotiv colors, wearing Loko T-shirts and waving team flags. "We came from the heart," one fan said prior to the game. "You know, all of us are one big family. The tragedy was a year ago and when it's a family matter, people become one. Yes, the team is new, still almost a stranger to us, but it is sure to change, I'm sure. And we came to support the young players. The result today is not even important to us. I think the guys will be pleased that we came. Perhaps they will be surprised that we got this far."
Memorials for the lost team have not slacked off. They began in Minsk immediately after the crash, and on the day after, at the rink where Loko would have played, a ceremony honored the lost opponent instead.
(That's the cut down version; a full-half hour version is here.)
Every KHL team wore a commemorative patch on its jerseys and some NHL teams bore patches in tribute to former teammates who died. There were remembrances in various NHL buildings after last season began, like this one in Detroit for McCrimmon.
...and this one in St. Louis for Demitra and Korolev.
In August, the 2012 Canada-Russia Challenge, a four-game series between the top junior players of the two nations, was played in honor of Lokomotiv, with the first two matches at Yarolsavl's Arena 2000, Loko's home ice, and the second two in Halifax, where Team Canada prevailed.
Earlier this week, a half million dollars were raised for the Lokomotiv families via a benefit game in Russia featuring teams captained by Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin.
And the trophy presented annually to the winner of the KHL's season-opening game, the Opening Cup, was re-named the Lokomotiv Cup. That game pits the previous Gagarin Cup finalists and, on Tuesday, champions Dinamo Moscow skated off with the Cup by downing Avangard Omsk, 3-2, the winning margin coming in the postgame skills competition.
From all reports, the pregame ceremony united the arena in memory of0 the Lokomotiv players and staff, their names dancing off the empty ice surface in a light show orchestrated to the strains of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”
Changing the identity of the trophy seemed like a proper tribute to the lost Lokomotiv team, but one Russian hockey columnist, Dmitry Ponomarenko of Sovietsky Sport, found that what he thought would be a fitting gesture was anything but on a day when the new season is usually celebrated with joy. "Until yesterday I had no doubt of the correctness of the decision," he wrote Wednesday. "It was only during the contest I realized -- something is wrong....After all, no matter what, the opening match of the season is a holiday. We look forward to the return of major hockey." Suddenly, when he heard the announcement in the arena that the teams were playing for the Lokomotiv Cup, it was "like an ax to the head....The joy of the opening of the season faded." It seemed to Ponomarenko "a little sacrilegious" combining "a housewarming and a commemoration."
Perhaps one year is not enough to lift the sadness of that catastrophe by the Volga.
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