One of the worst plane crashes in sports history – which killed 43 people, including former NHLers – has raised alarms over the safety of air travel in Russia and devastated an elite hockey league already struggling to prove itself.
The aging Yak-42 Russian-made passenger jet had just taken off into clear skies on Wednesday afternoon from the Yaroslavl airport carrying 45 passengers and crew, including forward Pavol Demitra, defenceman Ruslan Salei and Canadian Stanley Cup winner Brad McCrimmon, members of the Kontinental Hockey League's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
Airborne for only a few minutes, the aircraft may have clipped an airport beacon antenna before plunging down next to the Volga River, about 240 kilometres northeast of Moscow. Everyone aboard was killed except crew member Alexander Sizov and player Alexander Galimov, who suffered burns to 90 per cent of his body.
Already this year, Russia has had eight fatal crashes.
"These players, they go there as mercenaries to a degree," said Edmonton-based agent Ritch Winter, who has represented Mr. Demitra and Josef Vasicek, who was also killed in the crash. "They go to make a living that they can't make in their hometowns. … The costs are high on a day-to-day basis. I don't think any of them ever expected it to be this high."
In many ways, the KHL is a collision of hockey worlds.
The league brings together NHL players who are winding down their careers, but can still collect lucrative paycheques, and up-and-comers honing their skills for a shot at the North American big time. Its 24 clubs trudge all over Russia, Belarus, Latvia and Kazakhstan in pursuit of the Gagarin Cup, but the KHL has had financial woes and health and safety issues.
Alexei Cherepanov, 19, a New York Rangers pick, was playing a regular-season game for the Avangard Omsk in 2008 when he collapsed on the bench. He had an undiagnosed heart condition, but the league came under fire over several medical missteps. With almost three minutes left in the game, the onsite ambulance had left. The defibrillator on hand had a dead battery.
Some officials were suspended and new safety measures were instituted.
Mr. Cherepanov's former teammate, U.S. goalie John Grahame, who had played for the Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning, wound up in a contract dispute with the KHL after he was suddenly released in 2008.
He told the Winnipeg Free Press earlier this year that he went to Russia despite the "horror stories," which he found "100 per cent true."
Dave King, who became the first Canadian to coach a team in the league and co-wrote King of Russia: A Year in the Russian Super League, said that while improvements have been made for players, travel conditions are far from ideal.
"They charter like NHL teams to allow players to be fresh. But a lot of the charter aircrafts there aren't brand new, far from it. They're usually out-of-service planes from the two airlines, Aeroflot and Siberian Air. They're very dated planes," said Mr. King, who coached the Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 2006-07.
Russia's transport watchdog, Rostransnadzor, has grounded all Yak-42 aircraft, eight of which have crashed over the years, killing 570. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who plans to visit the crash site, had ordered aging Russia-made aircraft taken out of service next year.
A Tupolev Tu-134 crashed near Petrozavodsk, killing 44 people, in June. Pilot error was blamed for the April, 2010, crash of a Tu-154 into trees in Smolensk, killing a Polish delegation of more than 90 people, including president Lech Kaczynski.
The latest accident is under investigation. An air traffic controller quoted in Russian media said the 18-year-old plane owned by Moscow-based Yak Service failed to gain adequate height on takeoff bound for Minsk and the team's first game of the season. It smashed into the riverbank and burst into flames as the fuselage came to rest in the water.
One witness told the RIA Novosti news agency: "All I remember is that they pulled out four bodies on to the bank in white shirts – then I found out that it was our team, Lokomotiv, which I love very much, which I support and will keep on supporting. It was like a nightmare."
Emergency workers and fishermen in small boats helped search the wreckage.
"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.
International Ice Hockey Federation president René Fasel also issued a statement.
"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 10 nations. This is a terrible tragedy for the global ice hockey community with so many nationalities involved."
In Yaroslavl, up to 12,000 people gathered outside the team's arena to sing songs, leave flowers and comfort each other, according to local media. In Tunoshna, the settlement next to the airport, a church bell rang and villagers carried candles for a requiem service.
Former NHL scout Alexei Dementiev, now a Moscow-based agent, whose client Maxim Shuvalov, an 18-year-old defenceman, died in the crash, said the accident demands that the KHL examine how teams travel.
"With all of the accidents happening recently in Russia, something should change," he said. "The kids who died, they were our future."
The KHL succeeded Russia's Super League in 2008 and has been propped up with cash from wealthy entrepreneurs and big business.
The KHL will go ahead with the three games scheduled for Thursday and postponed any decision on rebuilding Lokomotiv's roster. One solution may be to hold a dispersal draft, a process similar to the NHL's emergency rehabilitation plan should a team be left with fewer than 14 players and one goaltender.
With reports from James Mirtle and Matthew Sekeres
Tom Parfitt is a freelance reporter based in Moscow