Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, one of the KHL's strongest teams, has been destroyed by tragedy. (AP Photos)
By Stu Hackel
For hockey fans, the beginning of a new season is always a joyous time, but with so much sadness infusing the sport this summer, it seems as if it will be hard to muster up the usual enthusiasm. And Wednesday's news out of Russia that the plane carrying the KHL team Yaroslavl Lokomotiv has crashed, killing almost all of the 45 people on board, is unquestionably the worst news of all.
In the words of Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, it is "the darkest day in the history of our sport."
Following the earlier body blows caused by the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, and the various controversies surrounding them all focusing on depression and addiction, Wednesday's news feels like a staggering punch.
The KHL is considered the top professional hockey league in Europe and second only to the NHL in the caliber of play and quality of talent. Lokomotiv's roster was filled with top players from a number of countries, including Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belarus and Sweden.
Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry said the plane was carrying 37 passengers and eight crew, and all but two people were immediately killed in the crash. Those two were a flight attendant and player Alexander Galimov, who was in a grave condition with burns over 80 percent of his body. There were conflicting reports about Galimov's survival. The fate of the flight attendant, Alexander Sizov, was not immediately known. ITAR-TASS reported that the plane collided with a beacon antenna upon takeoff after being unable to gain safe altitude and that it crashed about 500 yards from the runway near the Volga River.
The team was heading to Minsk to play on Thursday against Dinamo Minsk in their opening game of the Kontinental Hockey League season. Lokomotiv press attaché Vladimir Malkov told Sovetsky Sport that the entire roster was on the trip, including four players from their junior team.
Lokomotiv had some names in its organization that are familiar to NHL fans (and the links accompanying each name go to stories that reflect on their lives in the aftermath of Wednesday's crash), starting with head coach Brad McCrimmon, the former NHL player and long-time assistant coach, most recently for the Red Wings. This was McCrimmon's first head coaching job, and he was on his way to his first game. His assistants included former NHLers Igor Korolev and Alexander Karpovtsev, who was one of the first four Russians to play on a Stanley Cup team, the 1994 Rangers.
Among the former NHL players listed on the Lokomotiv roster were Pavol Demitra, 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). Sergei Ostapchuk played two years in the Quebec Major Junior League.
Many of these men were also stars for their home countries' national teams. But, of course, the scope of this tragedy extends well beyond North American hockey and even the European hockey community into the lives of the families of all involved, regardless of where they've played. In Russia, this is a tragedy on a national scale for a country that has taken a good measure of pride in the rise, albeit unsteady, of the KHL during the last few years.
What this means for the KHL is not yet clear. It is now due to open its season tomorrow, and there are reports that, with the exception of the Minsk-Yaroslavl match, the games will be played as scheduled with no music or entertainment during play stoppages. Going forward with the schedule would be a very questionable decision, sure to draw criticism in many quarters. If true, the KHL perhaps believes that postponing the games would be seen as a sign of weakness.
In its first statement on the matter, the league said, “We are only beginning to understand the impact of this tragedy affecting the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl club and the international hockey community. First and foremost, our condolences go out to the families and friends of the players, coaches and staff lost in today’s tragedy.
“We know that there are many in the KHL family who will be grieving with us. As the investigation of this tragedy progresses we will work closely with investigators, government officials, club executives and the Yaroslavl community. We are working to find an appropriate way to honor this club and begin the healing process from the deep loss so many of us feel today.
“We are aware that many of you have questions. This tragedy remains our primary focus. We ask for patience as we find an appropriate way to proceed with the 2011/2012 season. We will continue to communicate our plans as they take shape.”
As for the fate of Lokomotiv, professional sports leagues generally do have regulations about how to contend with these situations -- for example, reassigning a few players in a "draft" from each of the remaining teams to reform the stricken team -- but what provisions the KHL has in place are not yet known.
KHL president Alexander Medvedev was attending the season's first match in Ufa between last year's KHL championship finalists, Salavat Yulaev, and visitors Atlant Moscow. He stopped the game in the first period to inform the crowd of the crash, and the rest of the match was eventually canceled, prompting applause from the saddened spectators (video). who also observed a moment of silence in memory of the Yaroslavl team. Medvedev said in his remarks, "I want to assure you that we will do everything we can to continue the highest level of hockey in Yaroslavl. The Lokomotiv club has been one of the strongest in the KHL."
Players on the Salavat Yulaev and Atlant teams were reportedly in tears in their dressing rooms. Alex Kovalev, the former NHLer, told reporters, "I cannot talk. I had so many friends on that plane. Korolev. Karpovtsev, who I won the Stanley Cup with."
In his statement, Fasel said, “Despite the substantial air travel of professional hockey teams, our sport has been spared from tragic traffic accidents. But only until now. This is the darkest day in the history of our sport. This is not only a Russian tragedy, the Lokomotiv roster included players and coaches from ten nations.”
In Pittsburgh, Penguins GM Ray Shero opened the press conference updating Sidney Crosby's recovery from a concussion by extending the condolences of his team and the entire NHL to the families of the victims.
Adam Proteau, the fine writer for The Hockey News, was scheduled to interview Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews on Wednesday morning, and when he told Toews of the crash, Proteau tweeted, Toews eyes widened in disbelief and he said, "This is the worst summer ever for hockey."