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.
The crash also was the latest tragedy to befall the sport of hockey — following the sudden, offseason deaths of three of the NHL’s tough-guy enforcers that has shocked fans.
The chartered Yak-42 jet was carrying the team — Lokomotiv Yaroslavl — to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where it was to play Thursday in its opening game of the Kontinental Hockey League season. Of the 45 people on board, 36 were players, coaches and team officials; eight were crew.
The plane apparently struggled to gain altitude and then hit a signal tower before breaking apart along the Volga River near Yaroslavl, 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Moscow. One of the blue-and-white plane’s charred engines poked through the surface of the shallow water.
”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.
Among the dead were Lokomotiv coach and NHL veteran Brad McCrimmon, a Canadian; assistant coach Alexander Karpovtsev, one of the first Russians to have his name etched on the Stanley Cup as a member of the New York Rangers; and Pavol Demitra, who played for the St. Louis Blues and the Vancouver Canucks and was the Slovakian national team captain.
Other standouts killed were Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek, Swedish goalie Stefan Liv, Latvian defenseman Karlis Skrastins and defenseman Ruslan Salei of Belarus.
Russian NHL star Alex Ovechkin reflected the anguish that resonated through the sport of hockey when he tweeted: ”I’m in shock!!!!!R.I.P.”
”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.
The NHL already has been mourning three unexpected deaths of players in recent months, including a suicide and an accidental drug overdose.
The cause of the crash was not immediately apparent, but Russian news agencies cited 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 company, Yak Service.
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 age of the aircraft, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality.
Divers worked feverishly to recover bodies in a search operation that lasted well into the night. They struggled to heft the bodies of large, strong athletes in stretchers up the muddy, steep riverbank.
Swarms of police and rescue crews rushed to Tunoshna, a ramshackle village with small wooden houses and a blue-domed church on the banks of the Volga 10 miles (16 kilometers) east of Yaroslavl.
Resident Irina Prakhova was walking to the village pump for a bucket of water when she saw the plane going down and 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 arena in Yaroslavl to mourn. Most carried flowers. Riot police stood guard as fans sang to honor the dead athletes.
Yaroslavl Gov. Sergei Vakhrukov promised the crowd that the Lokomotiv team would be rebuilt, prompting anger from some fans at a perceived lack of respect for the dead.
The Kontinental Hockey League has 24 professional teams across Russia, Belarus, Latvia, Kazakhstan and Slovakia that draws players from the NHL and European leagues. Lokomotiv is a leading force in Russian hockey and came third in the KHL last year. It was also a three-time Russian League champion in 1997, 2002 and 2003.
”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 Tretiak.
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.
Detroit coach Mike Babcock said McCrimmon ”wanted to be a head coach, so he went to Russia to do it.”
A game Wednesday between 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 TV showed an empty arena in Ufa as grief-stricken fans abandoned the stadium.
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. The forum is being held in the hockey stadium.
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.”
In the western Slovak city of Trencin, where Demitra started his career and where he played during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, hundreds of fans gathered outside an arena 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 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.
In 1980, 14 members of the U.S. amateur boxing team were killed in a crash in Warsaw, Poland.
A plane crash in 1950 near the Russian city of Sverdlovsk, now called Yekaterinburg, killed 13 players and officials in the Soviet air force’s ice hockey squad. A Munich air crash in 1958 cost eight Manchester United players their lives.