It was supposed to be the start of a season of celebration for the KHL. The third year of the new-look competition, a first team drafted in from outside the former USSR and growing confidence the league’s long-term future.
But then, during the Opening Cup game in Ufa, news came through of a disaster. The plane taking Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to its first game of the season in Minsk had crashed on take-off. Out of more than 40 people on board, the only survivor was a member of the cabin crew, Alexander Sizov.
The tragedy, which took the lives of players and coaches from all over the hockey world, sent shockwaves from the banks of Volga throughout Russia and on to Sweden, Canada, Slovakia and beyond. Tributes poured in, respects were paid near and far. In Bratislava, Slovakian fans remembered their inspirational captain Pavol Demitra with flowers and candles outside Slovan’s arena, in a church porch in the city centre and with a spontaneous outbreak of applause at a Slovan football match against FC Nitra – the applause in the 38th minute in honour of his playing number. The NHL game between the Caps and the Pens was dedicated to the memory of those who died; Dallas Stars staged a benefit for Karlis Skarstins and his family. National federations in Germany, Latvia and the Czech Republic retired the jerseys of the players they lost.
Five years later, Yaroslavl still remembers. Sep. 7, 2016 was marked with memorial services. Wreaths were laid at monuments across this hockey-crazy city, and at the site of the fateful crash.
It was a very different scene when hockey returned to Lokomotiv in the aftermath of the crash. The KHL and its clubs suspended play for several days to give everyone time to assess the situation. Lokomotiv was invited to draft a new roster and fulfil its fixtures with a hastily-assembled team drawn from the other members, but ultimately chose not to do so. Instead the youth team, which had itself lost a few players who had been chosen to go to Minsk for a taste of big-league experience, would represent the club – initially in the age-restricted MHL and, from December, in Russia’s second-tier VHL.
In keeping with Russian traditions, the club management decided that no hockey could be played at Arena 2000, Loko’s regular home, until 40 days of mourning had passed. The youth team’s first home games fell within that 40-day deadline, so the action moved to the Torpedo Sports Palace, once home to the first team but long since superseded by the impressive modern facility on the edge of town.
The atmosphere was tense. Nobody really wanted to be watching hockey, given everything that had happened. At the same time, nobody wanted not to be watching hockey, feeling that keeping the club alive was the best possible tribute to the guys. Fans I spoke to that day believed the club had made the right decision to focus on the youth team. This way, Yaroslavl’s team was represented by Yaroslavl lads, kids who lived and breathed the hockey passion of their home time. It felt better than a host of well-meaning outsiders, bussed into fulfil someone else’s fixtures.
In Russia, flags rarely fly at half-mast. Instead, the Lokomotiv banner over the stadium entrance was trimmed with black. Inside, a poem typed onto a sheet of A4 was pinned on the office door. Among the tributes to the departed, a passing reference to the on-going arguments about Russia’s alarming aviation safety record: “Kto vinovat? Zachem sporit?” – Who’s to blame? Why argue? Pointing fingers was not going to heal a wounded city.
On the ice Loko lost out narrowly to Omskiye Yastreby, the junior section of Avangard Omsk. A 40-save shut-out from visiting goalie Eduard Reisvikh helped the visitor to a 2-0 win. Ultimately, Omsk would win the title that season, but for Lokomotiv the big win came, in defiance of cliché, simply through overcoming tragedy and taking part.