Plane carrying KHL team crashes

Updated: September 8, 2011, 8:00 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

TUNOSHNA, Russia -- A private jet carrying a Russian professional hockey team to its first game of the season crashed shortly after takeoff Wednesday, killing 43 people -- including European and former NHL players -- in one of the worst aviation disasters in sports history. Two people survived the accident.

Both Russia and the world of hockey were left stunned by the deaths of so many international stars in one catastrophic event. Of the 45 people on board, 36 were players, coaches and team officials; eight were crew.

Dallas Stars defenseman Karlis Skrastins, Slovakian national team captain and ex-NHL player Pavol Demitra, Olympic gold medal-winning goaltender Stefan Liv of Sweden and the team's coach, former Detroit Red Wings assistant and NHL player Brad McCrimmon were among those confirmed dead.

The chartered Yak-42 jet was carrying the team -- Lokomotiv Yaroslavl -- to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where it was to play Thursday against Dinamo Minskin its opening game of the Kontinental Hockey League season.

The plane apparently struggled to gain altitude and then hit a signal tower before breaking apart along the Volga River near Yaroslavl, 150 miles northeast of Moscow. One of the blue-and-white plane's charred engines poked through the surface of the shallow water.

Russian television showed a flaming fragment of the plane in the river as divers worked feverishly to recover bodies.

"This is the darkest day in the history of our sport," said Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation. "This is not only a Russian tragedy -- the Lokomotiv roster included players and coaches from 10 nations."

One player -- identified as Russian Alexander Galimov -- and one unidentified crew member were hospitalized in "very grave" condition, said Alexander Degyatryov, chief doctor at Yaroslavl's Solovyov Hospital.

"Their state of health is very grave. But there is still some hope," said Degyatryov said.

Also killed were Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek, the Emergency Ministry said.

Ruslan Salei of Russia, who played for the Red Wings last year and previously played for the Anaheim Ducks, was also among the dead.

"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," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr said the union was "deeply saddened" by the deaths of so many former NHLPA members.

"Words cannot express the profound sorrow that this loss has created. Our sincere condolences go out to the friends and families who have been impacted by this terrible tragedy," Fehr said in a statement.

Russian NHL star Alex Ovechkin tweeted: "I'm in shock!!!!!R.I.P ..."

The crash comes on top of an already mournful year for the NHL in which three of the league's enforcers were found dead: Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and recently retired Wade Belak.

The cause of Wednesday's crash was not immediately apparent, but Russian news agencies cited unnamed local officials as saying it may have been due to technical problems. The plane was built in 1993 and belonged to a small Moscow-based Yak Service company.

[+] EnlargeLokomitiv Crash
AP Photo/Misha JaparidzePlayers from Lokomotiv of the KHL were aboard a plane that crashed on the banks of the Volga River, killing at least 43.

In recent years, Russia and the other former Soviet republics have had some of the world's worst air traffic safety records. Experts blame the poor safety record on the age of the aircraft, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality.

"It's just stunning and just awful," Demitra's agent, Matt Keator, said of the tragedy.

Keator had visited with Demitra in Russia three weeks ago. He first met the player when the two were with the Blues organization -- Keator as a scout and Demitra as a successful player.

"You couldn't find a more popular teammate," Keator said.

Two former Chicago Blackhawks, Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev, also were among those that died. Karpovtsev and Korolev were assistant coaches with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

Karpovtsev, 41, played for the Hawks from 2000-04. He won a Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994. He joined three Rangers teammates in 1994 as the first Russian players to have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup.

Korolev, also 41, was a Hawk from 2001-04. In 12 NHL seasons with St. Louis, the Winnipeg-Phoenix franchise, Toronto and Chicago, he scored 119 goals in 795 games.

"We stand together with the entire KHL, NHL and hockey world in mourning today's tragic news concerning the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team," the Hawks said in a statement. "The tragedy affects the Chicago Blackhawks family directly as we mourn the losses of Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev, two players who spent time with our organization and that our fans know well. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl organization."

The Stars confirmed on their website that Skrastins was among those killed.

"The Dallas Stars family is shocked and saddened by the passing of Karlis Skrastins and so many other young lives in a plane crash in Russia today," Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk said. "Karlis was a wonderful father and husband, as well as a good friend. He will be greatly missed."

Swedish Ice Hockey Association chairman Christer Englund told The Associated Press that the 30-year-old Liv, who helped Sweden win gold medals in the Olympics and world championships in 2006, was aboard the flight.

Former New Jersey Devils forward Alexander Vasyunov also was among the dead, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello told ESPNNewYork.com. Vasyunov was 23.

"I don't think anybody can prepare for something like this," Lamoriello said. "It's just devastating news. Words can't express my personal feelings.

"I can't say enough about him as a young man. He certainly had talent. His whole career was in front of him."

The San Jose Sharks announced that prospect Daniil Sobchenko was among those killed in the crash.

"Daniil attended our development camp this past July and everyone on our staff agreed that he had a bright future with our organization," Sharks vice president and general manager Doug Wilson said in a statement. "He was an amazing person with a fun-loving personality and his attitude and energy during his time in San Jose was infectious. Our deepest sympathies go out to his family and friends."

The KHL released a statement saying "We are only beginning to understand the impact of this tragedy affecting the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl club and the international hockey community. First and foremost, our condolences go out to the families and friends of the players, coaches and staff lost in today's tragedy.

"We know that there are many in the KHL family who will be grieving with us. As the investigation of this tragedy progresses we will work closely with investigators, government officials, club executives and the Yaroslavl community. We are working to find an appropriate way to honor this club and begin the healing process from the deep loss so many of us feel today.

"We are aware that many of you have questions. This tragedy remains our primary focus. We ask for patience as we find an appropriate way to proceed with the 2011-2012 season."

International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel called the crash "a terrible tragedy for the global ice hockey community," pointing out that the team's roster included players and coaches from 10 countries.

"Despite the substantial air travel of professional hockey teams, our sport has been spared from tragic traffic accidents," Fasel said. "But only until now. This is the darkest day in the history of our sport."

Swarms of police and rescue crews rushed to Tunoshna, a ramshackle village with a blue-domed church on the banks of the Volga River 10 miles east of Yaroslavl. A flotilla of boats combed the water for bodies. Divers struggled to heft the bodies of large, strong athletes in stretchers up the muddy, steep riverbank.

Resident Irina Prakhova saw the plane going down then heard a loud bang.

"It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong," said Prakhova. "I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on."

More than 2,000 mourning fans wearing jerseys and scarves and waving team flags gathered in the evening outside Lokomotiv's stadium in Yaroslavl to pay their respects. Riot police stood guard as fans chanted sport songs in honor of the dead athletes.

Yaroslavl governor Sergei Vakhrukov promised the crowd that the Lokomotiv team would be rebuilt from scratch, prompting anger from some fans at a perceived lack of respect for the dead.

Lokomotiv is a leading force in Russian hockey and finished third in the KHL last year. It was also a three-time Russian League champion in 1997, 2002 and 2003.

McCrimmon, who took over as coach in May, was most recently an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings, and played for years in the NHL for Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Calgary, Hartford and Phoenix.

Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said he has known McCrimmon since the 1980s, during his playing career.

"It's shocking. I think everybody in the hockey community is probably in shock and numb, myself included," Holland told ESPN.com.

"He loved hockey. He was a tremendous guy and wonderful family man. Our thoughts and prayers go to his wife Maureen and two children."

"We will do our best to ensure that hockey in Yaroslavl does not die, and that it continues to live for the people that were on that plane," said Russian Ice Hockey Federation president Vladislav Tretyak.

A cup game between hockey teams Salavat Yulaev and Atlant in the central Russian city of Ufa was called off in mid-match after news of the crash was announced. Russian television showed an empty arena in Ufa as grief-stricken fans abandoned the stadium.

The KHL is an international club league of teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia.

Russia was hoping to showcase Yaroslavl as a modern and vibrant city this week at an international forum attended by heads of state, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, so the crash came as a particularly bitter blow.

Many in the Czech Republic also took the news hard.

"Jan Marek, Karel Rachunek, and Josef Vasicek contributed greatly to the best successes of our ice hockey in the recent years, first of all to the golden medals at the world championships in 2005 and 2010," said Tomas Kral, the president of the Czech ice hockey association. "The were excellent players, but also great friends and personalities. That's how we will remember them."

Fans planned to gather Thursday at the Old Town Square in the Czech capital of Prague, where national team players usually celebrate, to commemorate the three Czech players.

In the western Slovak city of Trencin, where Demitra started his career and where he played during the NHL lockout 2004-05 season, hundreds fans gathered outside the ice hockey stadium Wednesday night to light candles in his memory.

Medvedev has announced plans to take aging Soviet-built planes out of service starting next year. The short- and medium-range Yak-42 has been in service since 1980 and about 100 are still being used by Russian carriers.

In June, another Russian passenger jet, a Tu-134, crashed in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk, killing 47 people. That crash has been blamed on pilot error.

In past plane crashes involving sports teams, 75 Marshall University football players, coaches, fans and airplane crew died in West Virginia on Nov. 14, 1970, while returning from a game. Thirty-six of the dead were players.

Thirty members of a Uruguayan rugby club were killed in a crash in the Andes in 1972.

The entire 18-member U.S. figure skating team died in a crash on their way to the 1961 world championships in Brussels, and 18 members of the Torino soccer team died near Turin, Italy, in a 1949 crash.

A plane crash in 1950 near the Russian city of Sverdlovsk, now called Yekaterinburg, killed 13 players and officials in the air force's ice hockey squad. A Munich air crash in 1958 cost eight Manchester United players their lives.

ESPN.com hockey writers Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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