MOSCOW – A growing professional hockey league based in Russia is a point of pride for a country that loves the sport, able to attract stars from the prestigious North America game who find competitive salaries and a less-demanding schedule.
On Wednesday, one of the Continental Hockey League’s premier teams fell victim to one of Russia’s chronic weaknesses – the quality and safety of air travel.
A Yakovlev-42 charter jet carrying the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team to its season opener crashed into the Volga River shortly after takeoff, killing 43 people – 35 players, coaches and team officials, plus eight crew members. One player and a flight engineer survived, and were taken to a hospital with serious injuries, said the region’s governor, Sergei Vakhrukov.
Among the dead was former NHL star Brad McCrimmon, a 52-year-old Canadian, who signed a contract in May to coach Lokomotiv after working as an assistant coach for the Detroit Red Wings. The game scheduled for today in Minsk, Belarus, was to be his first as head coach.
Ten other foreigners were among the dead, including forward Pavol Demitra of Slovakia, who played for the Los Angeles Kings and other NHL teams, and defender Ruslan Salei who played professionally for teams including the Anaheim Ducks.
Footage from the crash site showed burning wreckage in shallow waters close to the Volga’s banks. Rescue workers in boats were cautiously approaching the plane, which still was burning and smoking heavily.
By nightfall, 35 bodies had been recovered, Emergency Ministry officials said.
The 24-team Continental Hockey League is organized and mainly sponsored by Russia, but some of the teams are located in former Soviet republics.
The league was built four years ago, based on the Russian national championship competition, and became popular with European and NHL players after the NHL 2004-05 lockout. It is still is considered an attractive place to play.
Vsevolod Kukushkin, a league adviser, said that the crash was “a horrible blow and a colossal loss for the league.”
Kukushkin said teams needed to reconsider the quality of the planes they charter and the training of the pilots. The president of the Russian Hockey Federation, Vladislav Tretyak, said it would no longer use Yakolev-42 jets.
The Russian Investigation Committee, the main investigative body in the country, was pursuing mechnical malfunction or human error as possible causes of the crash, officials said.