Tragedy in Russia.

My thoughts on the plane crash which took the lives of the players on KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

To say the summer of 2011 for the professional hockey community was one of heartbreaking loss is perhaps the understatement of the year.

First came the death of Derek Boogaard in May, followed in August by the passings of Rick Rypien and Wade Belak within two weeks of each other.

As the NHL world grieved their losses and face troubling questions regarding their deaths,  along came the news on September 7th of an airline crash in Russia which killed all but one member of the roster of KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

Most weren’t players well known to North American hockey fans, but among the dead were former NHL’ers Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins, Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek, Igor Korolev, and Alexander Karpotsev.

This tragedy struck like a thunderclap around the hockey world, leaving many fans around the world reeling in shock and sadness.

When the news was first reported, I was going about my usual day, working on my website and sending off articles to be posted.

I was looking forward to working on a “Where are they now?” piece about the 1998 Washington Capitals, as well as taking care of some day-to-day errands and chores.

Once the magnitude of this disaster dawned on me, I found it difficult to perform the tasks I had planned. I cut short my “Hockey Blog Beat” roundup, and decided to postpone the piece on the ’98 Capitals for a future day. My heart just wasn’t in it.

All those players and coaches, all those lives, gone in a heartbeat, lost to a fiery plane crash.

An entire team, gone.

I must confess that, in the past, I would on occasion briefly muse on the devastating impact upon the NHL if one of its teams were lost in a plane crash. Just a sort of “Can you imagine what it would be like if…” kind of thought that would flit through my over-active imagination whenever I’d heard news of a plane crash, .

Thankfully, we NHL fans haven’t experienced that tragedy, and hopefully, we never will, but for the fans of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, their team meant every bit as much to them as our NHL teams meant to us. What they’re experiencing now is unimaginable.

They cheered their favorite players, just as we do ours in the NHL. Some of those players we used to cheer for when they played on NHL teams in the recent past.

And now, they’re gone, and those fans are left to grieve and cope, along with the families and friends of the departed.

It wasn’t just a Russian team, it was an international squad, just like today’s NHL teams. Many Russians made up the Lokomotiv roster, but there were also Czechs, Slovaks, a Belorussian, a Latvian and a Canadian on the team.

The latter was Brad McCrimmon, a former NHL defenseman(who won a Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames in 1989) and assistant coach, who was named head coach of Locomotiv in May.

The others were perhaps more well known to younger fans who’d been following the NHL since the mid-1990s.

Demitra played sixteen seasons in the NHL, and had his best seasons with the St. Louis Blues, including a 93-point performance in 2002-03. He began his pro career on Prince Edward Island in 1993-94, as a member of the Ottawa Senators farm team.

Skrastins played 12 seasons in the NHL with the Nashville Predators, Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars, and was for many seasons considered amongst the league’s best shot-blocking defensemen.

Salei spent 14 season in the NHL as a defensemen, most of those with the Anaheim Ducks, where his best season was 2002-03, helping the then-Mighty Ducks reach the Stanley Cup Final.

Vasicek played seven seasons in the NHL, all but one with the Carolina Hurricanes, where he played on two Stanley Cup Finalists, including the Hurricanes 2006 championship team.

Rachunek also played seven NHL seasons, debuting with the Ottawa Senators, then moving on to the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils.

Karpotsev, or “Potsy” as he was known to NHL teammates and fans, was one of the first Russians to get his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, winning it as part of the NY Rangers championship team in 1994.

He went on to play for the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs, plus two short stints with the NY Islanders and Florida Panthers before retiring in Russia in 2007.

Korolev played over 700 NHL games over 14 seasons with the Blues, Maple Leafs, Blackhawks, Winnipeg Jets and Phoenix Coyotes. He and Karpotsev were assistant coaches for Lokomotiv.

Other than Karpotsev and Korolev, these aforementioned players were continuing their playing careers in Russia, as they could no longer find work in the NHL.

Several of their teammates were just starting out, hoping to use the KHL as a springboard to bigger and better things. One was a prospect of the New Jersey Devils, another of the San Jose Sharks.

Some harbored no illusions of playing in the NHL, but were content to be stars in their own league, in their own country.

They also left behind families, sweethearts, friends and former teammates, who are now grappling with the heartrending news that those they knew, who were full of life, looking forward to starting a new season, doing the one thing they loved to do, were suddenly and tragically taken from them.

The death of one player is sad enough, but because it’s an individual, we can manage to cope. The death of so many at once however leaves one numb, struggling to comprehend the magnitude of it.

For most years, we NHL fans haven’t had to deal with too much tragedy. Yes, players die, they’re human after all, but usually it’s the passing of a elderly former player. We feel sympathetic for their families, and if they were notable players, pause to remember their hockey accomplishments.

Rarely do we receive news of the death of a player still in their playing prime, or a retired player, like Bob Probert last summer, whom we we still consider a reasonably young man.

The deaths of Boogaard and Rypien, both in their twenties, and the recently retired Belak, who was 35, were terrible shocks, but they came individually. We had time to ponder their lives and the sadness of their passings.

The loss of so many players at once, so many lives so quickly snuffed out, however, is another matter. It feels surreal, as though what happened was a dream, a bad dream.

But it’s not.

The more callous will say, “So what, people die every day, sometimes in plane crashes, and no one cares about them”.

They’re wrong, of course, their families and friends care. They’re just not as well known as professional athletes, but the mourning for them from their loved ones is no less important.

As fans, most of us didn’t get to know these players, but we followed them, sometimes cheered for them, and in a way, felt like we knew them, even if they didn’t know us.

This tragedy is something the modern pro hockey community hasn’t experienced before, and hopefully, we won’t have to experience this again.

Quite frankly, speaking as a hockey fan, I hope I never experience another summer like this one again. I’ve had enough sadness for one summer.

I won’t get into speculating why the crash happened, or engage in any fault-finding. That’s up to the investigators, and I will leave it to them.

For now, all I can do is offer my sincere condolences to the families, friends and former teammates of all these players.

3 Comments

  1. “Thankfully, we NHL fans haven’t experienced that tragedy, and hopefully, we never will, but for the fans of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, their team meant every bit as much to them as our NHL teams meant to us. What they’re experiencing now is unimaginable.”

    After thinking about all the families affected by this tragedy, especially Ruslan Salei’s who missed games last year to stay in Southern California with his pregnant wife when my beloved Red Wings went out west, I thought about that poor city and the level of every single fan’s devastation. Unimaginable is the best way to describe it.

  2. Very well said, Lyle. What you wrote about the death of one person versus what happened in Russia yesterday summed things up very well for me. You can maybe find some closure or answers when one person passes away, but 40+ people losing their lives due to an airplane not being able to make altitude? It just seems so senseless. This tragedy just brings tears to my eyes. Oddly, I always thought Skrastins and Salai would have made a good D pairing in the NHL and here they both perish in the same flight. And I remember when Vasicek broke into the league and helped get the Canes into their first Stanley Cup final. RIP, guys, we’ll never forget you.

  3. Ruslan Salei will always be remembered as the kindest and humorous person and player to have suit up in the Ducks jersey. Orange County has truly lost a great citizen and a Ducks legend. RIP