It was almost 10 years ago today – Sept. 7th, 2011 – and I was outside of North Toronto Arena, talking to Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews for a story that would appear in The Hockey News, when news broke over the internet: a plane had crashed in Yaroslavl, Russia – a plane filled with professional hockey players from Russia’s Kontinental League.
At first, the names of all who died in the crash (and in the end, all but one of the 45 people on board would not survive it) did not come out, until it was clear the plane was carrying Yaroslavl’s entire Lokomotiv team.
Slowly, the shock and grief set in.
If it was Lokomotiv that was on that plane, that meant Brad McCrimmon – a beloved former NHLer who was settling in as the team’s head coach – was on board. That meant Igor Korolev and Alexander Karpotsev, two men whom I had interviewed during their time as Toronto Maple Leafs, were on board. That meant former NHLers Kãrlis Skratinš, Ruslan Salei, Karel Rachunek, Josef Vašíček and Pavol Demitra were on it.
All recognizable names, all just so sad to imagine they were gone in an instant. The pain was overwhelming, and this was only the pain felt by the hockey community at large; it was difficult to imagine what the families of the players, coaches and flight staff were going through.
McCrimmon’s impact on the hockey scene was unmistakable: he’d played 1,222 regular-season NHL games, and was given the nicknames “Beast” and “Sarge” for his gruff demeanor. But underneath that, there was a man who made lifelong friends with his teammates over the years – and not just as a player. After his playing days were over, he quickly adapted to life behind the bench, working as an associate/assistant coach for the New York Islanders, Calgary Flames, Atlanta Thrashers and Detroit Red Wings, as well as serving as head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades for two years.
At the time of the plane crash, McCrimmon had yet to coach a game for Yaroslavl. He had just signed up to be coach of Lokomotiv in May of 2011. The hole he left in the hearts of all who knew him was massive. He was a hockey lifer, and he was just 52 years old when his life was snubbed out by what was later proven to be the malpractice of the flight crew. It was wholly unfair to process that this universe had given him such an awful exit, but it was reality. McCrimmon deserved far better.
So did Demitra, the next-most-experienced former NHLer on the doomed flight. The Slovak native appeared in 847 regular-season NHL games (posting 768 points), as well as 94 playoff games (putting up 59 points), and he was awarded the league’s Lady Byng Award as the league’s most gentlemanly player in the year 2000. In international play, Demitra was an all-star and the leading scorer at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and was named captain of Slovakia’s team at the 2011 International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Championship. He was 36 years old when Yaroslavl’s plane went down, shortly after it took off. He had a wife and two children, as well as a third child that had predeceased him. His death was a monstrous horror to all who knew him.
The crash also took away Vašíček, who played 460 NHL regular season games over seven seasons, mostly with the Carolina Hurricanes, with who he won a Stanley Cup in the 2005-06 campaign. Vašíček had starred for the Lokomotiv in three seasons before he died, posting 24 goals and 55 points in 54 games in 2010-11. He was integral to Yaroslavl’s game plan, and did not let them down in the playoffs, generating 32 assists and 50 points in 54 KHL post-season games.
He was a skilled competitor, and more often than not, he gave his team a chance to win. Vašíček was just 30 years old when he died, and he didn’t deserve what must have been the final moments of terror the plane generated. He didn’t deserve to travel in what was shown to be a plane that had been scheduled to be taken out of service a few months after the crash, because it was due for a wide-ranging overhaul. He still should be here with us.
But it wasn’t simply the familiar names that we mourned that day, and in all the days that followed. We mourn the less-familiar players who also were killed. Ten years have passed, but the pain of so much loss has always been there. If you’re close to those who died, you don’t “get over” the disaster. You don’t find “closure” after suffering from that trauma. You learn to move through the days, but you never forget all the vibrancy, joy and inspiration all the lost people of Lokomotiv brought to the sport, and to their communities.
In hockey, everyone is connected somehow, if only because of their love of the game. But once you elevate your play to the top levels of the sport, you become more intertwined with those who share that love.
For example: Vašíček was related to former NHLer Thomas Vanek; Vašíček’s sister married Vanek’s brother. McCrimmon’s journey in his playing days led him to the Red Wings, where he became the partner of a young, still-developing superstar Nicklas Lidstrom; in Hartford, his second-to-last NHL stop, he was paired with the blossoming star Chris Pronger.
McCrimmon also skated alongside iconic blueliners Raymond Bourque, Paul Coffey and Mark Howe. Korolev, a native of Russia, earned his Canadian citizenship in 2000. He was 41 years old when he died; he was named godfather of the son of former Maple Leafs teammate Nikolai Antropov; and he was buried in Toronto.
They were all so familiar to us, even from the periphery of the hockey world, and it sometimes was human nature in the past to take them for granted. But after the Yaroslavl crash, we try our hardest, on their behalf, to appreciate everyone around us and the time we’re given on this planet. Although Lokomotiv eventually moved forward after the tragedy and iced a KHL squad again, the spirit of those who perished still surrounds the team. It really doesn’t feel like it’s been a decade since we lost them. The pain is still raw for their friends, family and teammates.
It also should be noted that this devastating incident wasn’t the first plane crash that ended the lives of all who were on board. In 1950, a plane went down in what was then known as Sverdlovsk (and is now known as Yekaterinburg), killing 19 people, including all but two members of the VVS Moscow club who weren’t on the flight. It is more difficult to remember them, as they passed away decades before many of us were born. Time can be a cruel eraser.
However, we can keep alive the memories of the Yaroslavl team. We can choose to remember the dynamic play of Demitra, mostly in a St. Louis Blues jersey. We can tell future generations how stellar McCrimmon was as a D-man, and how he excelled as a hockey coach. We can give them information on just about everyone on board on Sept. 7, 2011. We can be determined not to let their lives fade into history.
That’s what I think of when I think of the Yaroslavl crash. It has been 10 years, but it feels like yesterday. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news, and I know I’m not alone in remembering that awful September day so vividly. Hockey lost so much, and all we can do now is honor those we lost as best we can. We owe them that.