A big, wide hockey world that shrank with grief when the entire Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team perished in a plane crash on Sept. 7, 2011, became especially small to Ilya Kovalchuk.
The New Jersey Devils star winger played for Brad McCrimmon when he was an assistant coach of the Atlanta Thrashers and counseled him last year when he was offered the opportunity to become a head coach in Kovalchuk’s native Russia.
"He called me a lot about it to see what I knew," said Kovalchuk, who also spent 18 games during the 2010-11 season as a teammate of left wing Alexander Vasyunov, a second-round Devils pick in 2006 who also perished in the tragedy.
"But I also played with a lot of Lokomotiv members on the Russian National Team, so I really knew almost everybody on the plane."
Kovalchuk was home for the summer in Russia when the plane, on its way to the Kontinental Hockey League season opener in Minsk, Belarus, caught fire upon takeoff, clipped a tower and went down in a riverbank two kilometers from the Yaroslavl airport.
Three days later, Kovalchuk attended the memorial service, where the pain was as widespread as the financial needs by the families of many of the victims.
"Nobody had to tell me to help," said Kovalchuk, who has six goals and 10 assists in 16 playoff games. And apparently they are going to have to tell him when to stop.
"Caring guy," said Jay Grossman, Kovalchuk’s agent, who has coordinated the sales of Kovy shirts for $71 and photos for $17 through Kovalchuk’s Facebook page.
An autographed puck was auctioned for $1,200 to Nick Harper, a fan of Kovalchuk’s when he starred for the Thrashers. Harper took the train to New Jersey from Charlotte, missing three days of work so he could be handed the puck by No. 17 himself.
A rare signing Kovalchuk did in New Jersey in January has boosted the proceeds raised to $25,000, a check for which will be handed over personally by Kovalchuk in Yaroslavl after the Devils, currently engaged in the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Rangers, are either eliminated or become Stanley Cup champions.
Vasyunov, a Yaroslavl native who played for Lokomtiv’s junior team before spending most of the last three seasons with the Devils’ top farm team, was offered a contract before last season that called for a significant pay cut if he played in the minors again. Though he hoped to return to the Devils in time, Vasyunov took a better offer to play for the beloved team in his hometown, where his parents, Lyuba and Sergei, a factory worker, live in a two-bedroom apartment.
They and the late Alexander’s older brother, Alexei, will be the primary benefactors of Kovalchuk’s generosity. There were 43 people — including 26 players, 11 coaches and officials — on the plane. Too many to comprehend, let alone make their survivors financially comfortable.
"To split the money so many ways really won’t make a difference to anybody, so I will help the family of Vasyunov, who never got a big contract," Kovalchuk told The Daily. "He was a really nice kid. There were a lot of good persons on that plane. I lost a lot of friends all in one day.
"It wasn’t just a terrible tragedy for me, though, but for all of hockey."