A chartered plane carrying players and staff from one of Russia’s elite hockey clubs crashed north of Moscow on Wednesday, wiping out virtually the entire team.
The team, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, is a three-time champion of Russia’s Continental Hockey League (KHL), a relatively new, money-spinning venture which aims in the long run to challenge North America’s NHL. The Yaroslavl team, which contains a number of prominent ex-NHL players, was due to arrive in Minsk, Belarus for a match.
Reports indicate their plane crashed soon after takeoff, killing a reported 43 of the 45 on board, including the plane’s whole crew of eight. Observers claimed seeing body parts floating down the Volga river. A Lokomotiv Yaroslavl spokesman told the New York Times: “We have no team anymore. All our starting players, and all the service people, they all burned in the crash.”
The spotlight now turns once more upon the dodgy Soviet-era craft still widely in use in Russia. The country has experienced eight fatal aviation disasters this year alone, including six since June, some more deadly than this latest incident. Russian authorities have suspended the start of the league season and, thousands of miles away, news of the crash has prompted countless tweets from NHL players and fans in mourning.
There is, after all, something startling about the snuffing out of an entire team of professional athletes. Hockey players in particular are tough as nails, and withstand brutal punishment during games to score and skate with sometimes balletic grace. On the sporting stage, many of these athletes seem cloaked in a floodlit aura of invulnerability. The shock of a whole squad succumbing to such a sudden, horrible tragedy is considerable. To this day, the 1958 Munich crash of a plane carrying players of legendary British soccer team Manchester United lives long in the memory of the club, its fans and the sport at large.
This summer had already been dubbed hockey’s “summer of sorrow,” with the deaths of three NHL players in the off-season. The plane crash deepens the gloom exponentially. As a hockey fan, I remember Pavol Demitra — a Slovak winger who’s now listed among the dead — from his many years spent in the NHL. Around a decade ago, he was one of the best players in North America, a lanky, deceptively fast sniper with a terrifying shot. Demitra was known for his fully-shorn pate — clean-shaven with barely a follicle of hair on his head, he looked forever like some predator poised to strike. Or take Ruslan Salei, a Belarussian defenseman who also starred for a time in the NHL. Tenacious with an unruly mop streaming out from his helmet, he was a blur of energy and physicality. And, as a fan of the New York Rangers, I can’t forget Aleksandr Karpovtsev, a burly Russian defenseman with a big slap shot and a bigger grin, who, as one of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s assistant coaches, was also on the flight.
It’s unclear yet how the crash will affect the workings of the KHL — a slick, young league full of optimism and oligarch cash — or whether it will finally force Russia to take serious steps to address the failings of its accident-prone aviation industry. For now, as rescuers still sift through the wreckage and the eulogies pour in, there are just memories of prowess and triumph and the sad knowledge that, at the end of the game, the lights always go dark.
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