- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Before stepping onto the ice for an informal preseason workout Wednesday, Alex Ovechkin learned the awful news: A plane carrying Russian team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League had crashed, killing at least 43 of the 45 people on board.

Word spread to his Washington Capitals teammates, including a couple of others with connections to players who died in the crash.

“I am shocked. It’s very sad,” prospect Stan Galiev said. “I had a couple good friends there from world junior team — I played with them.”

It was the latest dark day in a tragic summer for a hockey community that mourned the deaths of NHL players Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien and recently retired player Wade Belak. Those deaths engendered debate about the role of fighting in hockey and how players might not be getting the necessary support.

Wednesday’s tragedy brought only heartfelt sadness.

“It’s kind of a scary moment,” a clearly shaken Ovechkin said. “It’s a whole national tragedy.”

Several former NHL players, including Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins and Brad McCrimmon — Lokomotiv’s coach — were killed.

According to Russian news agency Sport-Express and the Associated Press, witnesses saw the plane break into two pieces shortly after takeoff following what was thought to be a collision with an antenna. The team was flying from Yaroslavl, Russia, to Minsk, Belarus, for its first game of the KHL season and had most of its players and four youth-team players on board.

There were conflicting reports about the status of one surviving player, Alexander Galimov, whom Ovechkin knew well from their time with Russia’s 2005 world junior hockey team. He and one crew member were thought to be the only survivors of the crash, though Galimov’s burns reportedly were life-threatening.

Galiev knew three players in the crash — Yuri Urychev, Daniil Sobchenko and Sergei Ostapchuk — and wrote on Twitter that his friends “will be in my heart forever.”

Caps goaltender Tomas Vokoun was too distraught to talk, saying to a team spokesman, “What can I say?” His best friend — whom he was not comfortable talking about — died in the crash. He declined to comment and asked for a few days before addressing the matter.

Caps radio play-by-play man John Walton knew Salei, a defenseman, from the brief time they shared with Cincinnati of the American Hockey League and remembered him as a “a great guy — a fun-loving guy” who was well-liked by teammates.

“It’s just so awful to hear, even if you didn’t know some of these guys personally — you say ‘Hi’ to them, you see them at a game,” Mr. Walton said. “For all involved, it’s very tough.”

McCrimmon, who played 18 seasons in the NHL as a defenseman with teams including the Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings, left an assistant position with Detroit in May to take the job in Russia.

An outpouring of condolences came from around the tight-knit hockey family, which has become all too used to tragedy this summer.

“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 who at one time excelled in our league,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.

An NHL spokesman said the league was discussing an appropriate way to memorialize those killed in the crash.

According to Sovietsky Sport and other reports out of Russia, the KHL was still planning on playing games scheduled for Thursday, with league officials determined to find a way to help Lokomotiv field a team for this season. Fans gathered for a candlelight vigil outside the arena in Yaroslavl on Wednesday night, and the only game being played during the day was halted.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was scheduled to attend a political forum in Yaroslavl on Thursday but changed his plans so he could visit the crash site, a Russian Embassy spokesman said.

Weather conditions didn’t appear to play a role, as it was clear and sunny at the time of the crash. The Russian government was investigating possible criminal activity, but that was thought to be just standard procedure.

The plane, which crashed about 150 miles northeast of Moscow, was a Yak-42, a model Slava Malamud of Sport-Express said was using 30-year-old technology that is considered obsolete. There were plans for the aircraft to be taken out of service in October. Although Mr. Malamud pointed out that it was a cheaper plane, it is a common mode of transportation for KHL teams — and even the Russian national team — for midrange travel.

Considering the number of flights taken by professional and college sports teams, an event like this also forces players and coaches to think about how quickly things can go terribly wrong.

“We travel every day, and you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Galiev said. “It’s just life.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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