September 7, 2011 will be remembered as one of the worst days in hockey history. An airplane carrying the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team crashed just after takeoff from Tunoshna Airport, 11 miles southeast of Yaroslavl in central Russia. The team was on its way to Belarus, where they were set to begin their regular season against Dynamo Minsk.
The aircraft was an Yakovlev Yak-42, an outdated Soviet-era plane that was due to be phased out next year. In Russia the plane is known for its woeful air safety record, and just two months ago 44 people were killed when an Antonov-24 caught fire in midair before crashing in western Siberia. There have been eight fatal crashes in Russia just this year.
According to Slava Malamud of Sport Express, Kommersant, a Russian newspaper, reported Yak-Service, the airliner operating the plane, was ranked last by the European Air Safety Commission. The New York Times reported that the company, founded in 1993, was suspended for three months in 2009 by Russian authorities because of “major safety deficiencies.” The BBC reports that the aircraft broke into two pieces after hitting a radio mast before crashing into Volga river. The Times notes that eight Yak-42s have crashed over the years, killing 570.
“It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong,” an eyewitness told the BBC. “I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seat belts on.”
There are 45 confirmed fatalities of Wednesday’s crash, including all but one player on Yaroslavl’s roster — which includes former NHLers Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, Karel Rachunek, Karlis Skarastins, Josef Vasicek, and Alexander Vasyunov along with their head coach Brad McCrimmon.
“We have no team any more,” Lokomotiv spokesman Vladimir Malkov told The Times, “they all burned in the crash.”
Demitra, a three-time All-Star and Lady Byng winner, retired from international hockey in May. This video from his last game with Slovakia is poignant.
There are two known survivors of the crash — a male flight attendant and forward Alexander Galimov, who is listed in “extremely critical” condition according to Sport-Express.
The KHL’s season opener between Salavat Yulaev and Atlant was in progress when news about the tragedy broke, and was stopped after nearly 15 minutes had been played. KHL president Alexander Medvedev said the KHL season will go on as scheduled starting tomorrow.
According to RMNB’s Fedor Fedin, the mood across Russia is somber. Almost every channel on television is devoted to news of the crash, and grizzly pictures have been broadcast.
Meanwhile, reactions to the tragedy have come pouring in from the hockey community, and NHL.com has put together an extensive, though heartbreaking, collection of tweets from League players.
As for the Capitals, the catastrophe hits close to come for some players.
“I knew [Alexander Kalyanin] well, and I also know his father Igor Viktorovich well, who was a coach for Traktor,” Evengy Kuznetsov told KP Chelyabinsk. “It’s tough to talk right now. My condolences to his family.”
Former Capitals goalie Semyon Varlamov told Malamud he was “in shock” and couldn’t say anything else. Varlamov played in Lokomotiv’s organization for four years, including two with the main club.
“It’s kind of a scary moment,” said a shaken Alex Ovechkin, via The Washington Times’ Stephen Whyno. “It’s a whole national tragedy.”
Fellow Russian Stanislav Galiev who, like Ovechkin, knew some of the players on the team, was also moved.
“I am shocked,” Galiev said, again via Whyno. “It’s very sad.”
Whyno also reports that new Capitals goalie Tomas Vokoun declined to comment on the crash, saying his best friend was on board.
“Gloomy day in DC and even worse news in Russia,” defenseman John Carlson tweeted. “Prayers to all the family/friends associated today.”
“I heard about the accident, and I can’t say anything other than what happened today is just awful,” Nicklas Backstrom told Hockeysverige.se, as translated by @Rabiesmalin, about countryman Stefan Liv. “First, Stefan was a very good friend of mine, and then that the whole team was killed in the accident. You can say nothing bad about Stefan as a friend. He was a very happy and positive person and he always had a smile on his face. The news was awful to receive and hard to comprehend.”
The league echoed their players’ sentiments.
“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,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “Our deepest condolences go to the families and loved ones of all who perished.”
The same goes for us at RMNB.