Thursday, September 08, 2011

Hockey mourns once again

The news from half a world away still resonated across North America late into Wednesday night, word of a tragedy so horrible that it has left the entire hockey world shaken, wondering why this summer has provided for so much heartbreak and sorrow.

Word quickly spread Wednesday morning of the crash of a Russian airliner, the Yakolev-42 into the Volga River, taking  43 passengers and crew to their death, leaving two behind in hospital clinging to life. All members of the KHL's Yaroslavl Lokomotiv hockey team, a squad that was to begin their KHL season in Minsk, but now no longer exists.

It's a tragedy for the hockey world that joins the register of past horror, Grande Torino of 1949, the Manchester United crash of 1957, the Marshall crash of 1970, indeed the list is longer than one might think of sports teams, or athletes that have suffered such a terrible fate, a reminder of the dangers faced by those that travel frequently in pursuit of an opportunity to play a sport.

The Lokomtiv crash has come home to Canada as well, beyond the shared bond of hockey and the awareness of the distances that athletes sometimes travel, there were players and coaches on the Lokomtiv squad that were familiar names to Canadians, whether born here or having forged their careers here.

With the NHL featuring such an international make up now, the deaths of the 43 in Russia will no doubt touch many players on every team in the NHL, in the closed knit world of hockey,  one or more of the players on each team will no doubt know someone who has perished.

Hockey like soccer, has perhaps the largest pool of players that travel far and wide to ply their craft, so when the flight manifest was released, Canadians recognized many of those that perished, leaving many of us to pause and perhaps reflect on our thoughts about "pampered athletes", a term we hear from time to time.

Travel is a part of the sport, whether it's bus trips in Junior, college or minor pro, or the coast to coast swings of the NHL, but in the KHL travel is something much more than a five hour tour in first class, it at times can resemble a marathon as opposed to sprint.

Dave King spent time coaching in the KHL and provided an amazing glimpse into the life of the KHL in his book King of Russia (reviewed on HockeyNation in November of 2007), a league where costs are sometimes cut it seems, payments at times delivered in black bags, and where a road trip could mean a thirteen or fourteen hour flight across any number of time zones from one side of a vast nation/continent to the other.

There have always been safety concerns when it comes to aviation in Russia, some of which King outlined for George Johnson on Wednesday. Since the days of end of the communist era, the path towards a change in their political structure has been filled with shortcuts, alleged fraud and falsifications.

King and Eric Duhatschek touched on some of that internal strife in the nation, the peculiar inclinations of the KHL and of course the horrendous travel schedule that KHL teams must endure during the course of a season. The book they put together is perhaps the best insight into the KHL and the current state of affairs in Russia today.

To read the dispatches from Russia yesterday, the question of air safety seems to loom large, the very style of plane that Lokomtiv took off in on their ill fated flight, is reported to have been a plane that was to be replaced, though it seems in Russia replacement timetables seem slow compared to North American standards.

Deadly crash devastates KHL team, shines spotlight on Russian air safety
Workers search for crashed Russian plane's data recorders for clues
Medvedev calls for changes in Russia's troubled air industry
Poor quality fuel emerges as possible cause in fatal Russian jet crash
Russian investigators probe KHL jet crash

Investigations will be launched, changes will be demanded, but for the 43 passengers and crew of a flight to Minsk, those findings will come far too late,  any changes more a testimony to their deaths and the sadness it has brought far beyond the Russian borders.

The KHL schedule has been delayed while the KHL takes time to mourn its losses, collectively vowing to rebuild the proud Lokomotiv squad, though one wonders how officials will even begin to tackle such a monumental task, every day a reminder of friends who passed away in such a tragic fashion, their thoughts of an opening night in Minsk banished forever, traded in for ones of fear or prayer in the mere minutes that their plane plummeted back to earth.

One of the headlines of the day on Wednesday simply put it as Lokomotiv is no more, short and to the point, leaving us to mourn 43 fellow citizens of the world, most of whom simply wanted to play a game, make a living and dream the dream that many of us held when we were young.

In a summer that has brought much sadness to the hockey world, the news of September 7 only adds to the burden.

As though to reinforce the fragility of life and the whims of circumstance, Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star outlines the remarkable  story of Jorma Valtonen, the goaltender coach for Lokimotiv, who was supposed to be on the flight, but a decision by management at the last minute left him off the passenger list.

We can't imagine his thoughts today, reflecting on a decision which while saving his life, will no doubt leave him with haunting memories of his team for the rest of his life.

Below some of the items of note on Wednesday's tragedy, many offering much insight into the particulars of hockey in Russia, others providing snapshots of some of those who perished in the crash.  All offer up a picture of a day that the hockey world will long remember. We lead off with one of the deans of Canadian sportswriters, Roy MacGregor, who as always it seems, strikes the right chord for a horrible day.

Globe and Mail-- The 'darkest day' in hockey's annus horribilis
Globe and Mail-- McCrimmon, Demitra among 43 killed in Russian plane crash
Globe and Mail-- Brad McCrimmon: A plain spoken guy with a heart of gold
Globe and Mail-- Demitra was a hero is native Slovakia
Globe and Mail-- Notable NHLers among dead in Russian plane crash
National Post-- Hockey world endures its darkest day
National Post-- Friends mourn McCrimmon
National Post-- "We have no team any more"
Toronto Star-- Dark shadow over hockey world grows longer
Toronto Star-- Lokomotiv will play in KHL this season, vows league chief
Toronto Star-- Plane crash claims KHL club: 'The team is gone'
Toronto Star-- Hockey world in shock after jet crash involving Lokomotiv team
Toronto Sun-- Another tragedy rocks hockey world
Toronto Sun-- Former NHL players die in plane crash
Toronto Sun-- Hockey's saddest summer
Toronto Sun-- KHL postpones start of season
Edmonton Sun-- KHL tragedy's echoes widespread
Wiinipeg Sun-- McCrimmon's brother loses "best friend"
Winnipeg Sun-- Jets mourn death of McCrimmon
Vancouver Province-- Canuck GM close pals with two crash victims
Vancouver Sun-- Ex-Canuck Pavol Demitra among dead in Russia plane crash...
Vancouver Sun-- NHL players aware of the risks in flying
Ottawa Citizen-- Russian air travel a "white knuckle" experience: Ex- hockey player
Ottawa Citizen-- Senators shocked after losing friends in crash
Ottawa Citizen-- Lidsrrom remembers McCrimmon as a tutor and a friend
Ottawa Citizen-- 'There is no hope. The team is gone'
Ottawa Citizen-- Russian hockey to help rebuild Yaroslavl team after deadly crash

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