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Gone forever: Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

September 7, 2011

A 2011 team portrait. 

Boom. Poof. Over. Words cannot describe the chills I got this morning when checking the Hockey News quickly before work. “Breaking News: Lokomotiv Yaroslavl involved in a plane crash.” It choked me up. Eight hours later when I saw it on the 6 o’clock ESPN news, it brought me nearly to tears. And in the interim hours, between 10am and 6pm, as I caught word of each new development, I couldn’t help but thing of the vibrant and smiling faces of that team, of those players. The wreckage on the Volga River banks is another world, another life. Seeing it in print in the New York Times added a dimension to it, confirming it wasn’t all a dream, somehow. I was poring over every bit of news I could get, from the Russian, Czech, Slovak and North American media. Somehow it all wasn’t enough. Because the void left was too great.

It was and will be hockey’s worst day. 43 people, including flight attendants, consumed in nine-story plums of smoke and fire. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was one of the best and most competitive clubs in the KHL. They have hosted tremendous talent over the years on their club, in the city of Yaroslavl, which lies northeast of Moscow. They are a respected franchise is every sense of the term. But it could have been any KHL team. Could have been anyone. Ruslan Salei, Pavol Demitra, coach Brad McCrimmon, Karel Rachunek, Karlis Skrastins, and Josef Vasicek were among the best known, but also on board were Daniil Sobchenko, a Kiev-born 20 year-old who played on the Russian WJC team, Stefan Liv, team Sweden’s goaltender, and Andrei Kiryukhin, who was just a month older than me. And the flight attendant who lived, along with Alexander Galimov, a young man now resting in hospital with burns to 80% of his body and scants chances of survival. That is all the Lokomotiv have left: Galimov, a boy born and raised in the city itself.

Your mind starts to race when you read the names of the roster, the names of the dead. Over and over again. There they wereon, their charter Yak-42 jet headed for Minsk, where they’d play the first game of the KHL’s regular season. There wil be a lot of questions about Russian aviation, many of which will be valid and worth asking. Why did a plane crash on a bright and sunny day like that? Why did it fail to ascend? Why did it hit a beacon? What happened? Some have claimed the Yak-42 is banned from European Union airspace for safety reasons. Thinking of Russia’s long and torrid air disaster history is painful. But so is thinking that nothing will be done to prevent a future disaster.

But those players boarded that plane in full confidence. As thousands and thousands of professional hockey players the world do each and every day during their reason. It is an accepted and inherent risk in the game. It has nothing to do with concussions or body checks, but everything to do with weather, aviation, electronics. Luckily, these accidents have been rare. Today’s accident was a massive blow that’s hard to describe, hard to calculate.

If anything can be found in it all, it’s just how tightly-knit, how close and how fluid the hockey world is. KHL-NHL divide be damned: these players knew one another, played for one another. They were teammates in the major junior ranks of Canada, or in their junior systems in Europe. They were brethren on NHL teams, or on their national teams at the IIHF or Olympics. Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara–they looked to Pavol Demitra to lead them in the 2010 Olympics. Canadian, Slovak, Russian–didn’t matter one bit. Out in Yaroslavl, playing in the second best league in the world, were hockey’s foot soldiers, young and old. People complained today about Sidney Crosby carrying on with his press conference in Pittsburgh regarding his health. I have mixed feelings about it all, and for practical reasons, I doubt they could have rescheduled it. And in a way, much as I respect and love Crosby (which I do) it was perhaps alright to have the events concurrently unfolding: it put everything into perspective and stark contrasts. That band of players, all vanished, was every bit as important to the sport of hockey as its current figurehead, Crosby. Out there, they were carrying the torch of hockey. They might be a few thousand miles a way, but they are as close as the nearest stick or pair of skates. The heart of hockey has always been in its hinterlands.

I think of how Demitra shone at the Olympics, captaining team Slovakia, last year. I think of watching Lokomotiv just last week on my computer in Chicago. I think of Daniil Sobchenko’s glistening face while belting out the Russian national anthem this past January. I think of Patrik Elias at an airport confused and in mourning. And I think of a team that’s gone forever.

And there are no good words to explain it.

Yuri Urychev, one of today’s 43 victims. He played on the gold medal-winning Russian squad at this year’s World Juniors in Buffalo.

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