Summer and early fall of 2011 was not kind to the hockey world. In the span of four months we lost Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, and Rick Rypien. As tragic as these players stories are, little did we know that the worst was yet to come.
September 7, 2011.
As 26 players, 11 coaches and a handful of flight crew boarded their plane to Minsk, Belarus, it seemed like any old start to a hockey season. The KHL was starting up their third season after evolving from the Russian Superleague. It is seen as one of the best hockey leagues in the world – second only to the NHL – and the best in Europe and Asia.
The 2011 roster of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was made up of young lads and NHL veterans. Some winding down on their careers; others just getting started. The team had an impressive season the year before finishing 1st in the Tarasov division with 108 points and losing in the conference finals to Moscow. The team’s top scorer, former NHLer Pavel Demitra, seemed to be on a tear and was eager to build on his formidable play.
The day started off like any other. Conditions were clear at Yaroslavl’s Tunoshna Airport and it was a great day to be flying. Driving to Minsk would take 12 or 13 hours by bus or train so flying was most welcome. Loading the gear up onto the plane then getting comfortable in their seats were names that people from North America would recognize. Canadian and Stanley Cup champion Brad McCrimmon was excited to coach his first KHL squad. It was a new and exciting opportunity to continue his career in a country like Russia. His assistant coaches were also former NHLers Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev.
Karel Rachunek, Karlis Skrastins, and Josef Vasicek joined Demitra with this team to start the winding down of their careers. Each daunting players in their own right, you could easily see how much of a force Yaroslavl was going to be for this upcoming season. Sadly, we’ll never find out.
As the plane rushed off down the stretch of paved road, it overran the runway. The nose briefly went airborne before stalling and running into a tower mast. When it came back and hit the ground, the plane broke up and immediately caught fire near the Volga River. From the wreckage, all but two perished including the flight crew. Young Alexander Galimov survived the crash but died five days later in hospital. The avionics flight engineer, Alexander Sizov was the only survivor.
As the crash began to be investigated, there were a few shocking revelations that started to come to fruition. The plane overran the runway because of pilot error. The pilot put on the brakes as it began taking off thus skidding along the runway. What’s even more worry some was what came to light after. Both pilots had falsified documents to be able to fly the plane. They were flying illegally and the co-pilot was suffering from a nerve disease. He wasn’t even allowed to fly.
Upon hearing the news, the KHL canceled all of their home openers. The season was delayed by a week or so. Former NHL teams of those players who died paid tribute by wearing honorary patches. The German Ice Hockey Federation retired Robert Dietrich’s number and the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation did the same for Karlis Skrastins. Tributes upon tributes were poured out from hockey fans across the world for a senseless tragedy.
Yaroslavl did not compete that season but did rebuild for the next one. It’s sad and downright scary to think that everything could be taken away from you in an instant of time. However, life and death doesn’t stop for anyone. Not even in the hockey world; the show must go on.
September 7th will always be a dark cloud and reminder to the end of the chilling offseason of 2011. They may be gone but certainly not forgotten.
Rest In Peace…
Vitaly Anikeyenko, Mikhail Balandin, Gennady Churilov, Pavol Demitra, Robert Dietrich, Alexander Galimov, Marat Kalimulin, Alexander Kalyanin, Andrei Kiryukhin, Nikita Klyukin, Stefan Liv, Jan Marek, Sergei Ostapchuk, Karel Rachůnek, Ruslan Salei, Maxim Shuvalov, Kārlis Skrastiņš, Pavel Snurnitsyn, Daniil Sobchenko, Ivan Tkachenko, Pavel Trakhanov, Yuri Urychev, Josef Vašíček, Alexander Vasyunov, Alexander Vyukhin, Artem Yarchuk.
Yuri Bakhvlov, Aleksandr Belyaev, Alexander Karpovtsev, Igor Korolev, Nikolai Krivonosov, Yevgeni Kunnov, Vyacheslav Kuznetsov, Brad McCrimon, Vladimir Piskunov, Yevgeni Sidorov, Andrei Zimin.