They may not have been household names but the players on Lokomotiv Yaroslavl had won Stanley Cups, world championships and Olympic gold.
Members of the Kontinental Hockey League team had produced big moments in arenas around the world.
It’s no wonder that the air crash that killed 27 players, Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon and eight other club officials sent shock waves around the hockey world. In all 43 people on the plane died.
As much as anything, the stunning accident was a reminder of just how small the hockey community is.
Reaction poured in from all corners.
“Though it occurred thousands of miles away from our home arenas, this tragedy represents a catastrophic loss to the hockey world—including the NHL family, which lost so many fathers, sons, teammates and friends who at one time excelled in our league,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “Our deepest condolences go to the families and loved ones of all who perished.”
In total, team personnel with connections to 10 different countries were claimed in the deadliest accident to strike a professional hockey team in history.
“This is a terrible tragedy for the global ice hockey community with so many nationalities involved,” said International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel. “Our thoughts and prayers are with family and friends of the victims.
“Despite the substantial air travel of professional hockey teams, our sport has been spared from tragic traffic accidents. But only until now.”
Former NHLers Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek, Karlis Skrastins and Alexander Vasyunov were among the players who died along with assistant coaches Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev, both former NHLers themselves.
Lokomotiv was travelling to Belarus, where it was scheduled to open the KHL regular season against Dynamo Minsk on Thursday night. Taking off under sunny and clear skies, the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the Yak-42 plane crashed immediately after leaving an airport near Yaroslavl.
Safety concerns have been common among North Americans who spent time playing in the KHL in recent years. Many worried about the quality of planes being used by their team.
“You don’t really know how they’ve been maintained or how safe they are,” said Los Angeles-based agent Allan Walsh of Octagon Sports, who has clients in the KHL. “In all reality, I’m shocked something like this hasn’t happened earlier.”
Former NHL defenceman Bryan Muir appeared in 23 games for Dynamo Minsk during the 2008-09 season and recalls travelling on a TU-134A plane that was built in 1962. While some of his Russian teammates were unfazed by its condition, the Winnipeg native never felt completely comfortable.
“We were kind of sitting there going `Holy smokes’ because you’re used to North America and the standards and everything that goes along with it,” Muir said in an interview. “I looked at the doorway and there’s this big crack with the aluminum riveted over the top of it.
“I’m just sitting there saying to myself `Oh my god’—just saying a prayer when I walked on the plane every time.”
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is one of 24 teams in a league which stretches across nine times zones, from Poprad, Slovakia, in the west to Khabarovsk, Russia in the far east.
Free-agent forward Alexei Yashin recently spent two seasons playing in Yaroslavl and was stunned to learn of the news during an on-ice workout with members of the New York Islanders.
“It’s a sad day in the history of hockey, and not just hockey, the whole country,” Yashin told Newsday. “A lot of my friends were on that plane.”
He’s far from alone. Virtually every NHL team issued a statement of condolence as nearly all were touched in some way by the massive loss.
“This is a terrible day for the hockey fraternity,” said former NHLer Keith Tkachuk, a close friend of McCrimmon and Demitra.
Added New Jersey Devils president Lou Lamoriello: “Nothing could prepare the hockey community for the devastating news it received today. (It) has left all of us beyond words.”
The 52-year-old McCrimmon played 18 years in the NHL for Boston, Philadelphia, Calgary, Detroit, Hartford and Phoenix before moving behind the bench.
He became Yaroslavl’s head coach in May following three seasons as an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings. His contract had expired with the NHL team and the sides parted mutually.
“We know he wanted to see what it was like being a head coach,” Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom told reporters in Detroit. “He wanted to do that in Russia. We all wished him well when we heard the news. We knew he would try and move up in his coaching career.”
As a player, McCrimmon was part of Calgary’s championship team in 1989. Karpovtsev (N.Y. Rangers, 1994) and Vasicek (Carolina, 2006) also have their name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
Yaroslavl’s Swedish goaltender Stefan Liv won both Olympic and world championship gold in 2006 while Vasicek and Jan Marek each helped the Czech Republic win gold at the 2010 world championship.
A number of Canadian players currently play in the KHL, including former Montreal Canadiens defenceman Brent Sopel. He signed with Metallurg Novokuznetsk over the summer and tweeted shortly after Wednesday’s plane crash: “In shock. Prayers out to all of the KHL families.”
The league halted its season opening game between Salavat Yulaev and Atlant during the first period after receiving news of the incident. A statement issued by the KHL called for patience while it decided how best to proceed with the 2011-12 season.
“This is the darkest day in the history of our sport,” said Fasel.