TUNOSHNA, Russia – A Russian jet carrying a top hockey team crashed just after takeoff Wednesday, killing 43 people, including the team’s Canadian coach, and leaving two others critically injured, officials said. It was one of the worst plane crashes ever involving a sports team.
The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the Yak-42 plane crashed into a riverbank on the Volga River immediately after leaving an airport near the western city of Yaroslavl, 240 kilometres northeast of Moscow. It was sunny at the time.
The plane was carrying the Lokomotiv ice hockey team from Yaroslavl to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where the team was to play Thursday against Dynamo Minsk in the opening game of the season for the Kontinental Hockey League. The ministry said the plane had 45 people on board, including 37 passengers and eight crew.
Former Vancouver Canuck Pavol Demitra was on board and died in the crash, his agent confirmed Wednesday. A “R.I.P. Pavol Demitra” Facebook group numbered over 85,000 members as of Wednesday morning.
The KHL confirmed that Canadian Brad McCrimmon was among the dead. McCrimmon took over as head coach in May.
A native of Saskatchewan, the 52-year-old was most recently an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings, and played for years in the NHL for Boston, Philadelphia, Calgary, Detroit, Hartford and Phoenix. McCrimmon played with the Calgary Flames when they won the Stanley Cup in 1989.
Officials said Russian player Alexander Galimov survived the crash along with a crewmember.
Eleven foreign players were reportedly onboard the jet. A Czech Embassy official said Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek were among those killed, and Latvian officials confirmed the death of Latvian defenceman Karlis Skrastins.
The plane that crashed was relatively new, built in 1993, and belonged to a small Moscow-based Yak Service company.
Swarms of police and rescue crews rushed to Tunoshna, a picturesque village with a blue-domed church on the banks of the Volga River. One of the plane’s engines could be seen poking out of the river and a flotilla of boats combed the water for bodies. Russian rescue workers struggled to heft the bodies of large, strong athletes in stretchers up the muddy, steep riverbank.
One resident, Irina Pryakhova, saw the plane going down, then heard a loud bang and saw a plume of smoke.
“It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong,” she said. “I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on.”
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin immediately sent the country’s transport minister to the site, 15 kilometres east of Yaroslavl. President Dmitry Medvedev also planned to tour the crash site.
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is a leading force in Russian hockey and came third in the KHL last year.
The Russian team featured several top European players and former NHL stars, including Slovakian forward and national team captain Pavol Demitra, who played in the NHL for the St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks.
Other top names on the team include Russian defenceman Ruslan Salei and Swedish goalie Stefan Liv.
The KHL is an international club league that pits together teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia. Lokomotiv was a three-time Russian League champion in 1997, 2002-2003. It took bronze last season.
A cup match between hockey teams Salavat Yulaev and Atlant in the central Russian city of Ufa was called off midway after news of the crash was announced by HHL head Alexander Medvedev. Russian television broadcast images of an empty arena in Ufa as grief-stricken fans abandoned the stadium.
“We will do our best to ensure that hockey in Yaroslavl does not die, and that it continues to live for the people that were on that plane,” said Russian Ice Hockey Federation President Vladislav Tretyak.
Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, called it the “darkest day in the history of the sport.”
“This is a terrible tragedy for the global ice hockey community with so many nationalities involved,” Fasel said in a statement.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with family and friends of the victims.”
In recent years, Russia and the other former Soviet republics have had some of the world’s worst air traffic safety records. Experts blame the poor safety record on the age of the aircraft, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality.
Medvedev has announced plans to take aging Soviet-built planes out of service starting next year. The short- and medium-range Yak-42 has been in service since 1980 and about 100 are still being used by Russian carriers.
In June, another Russian passenger jet crashed in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk, killing 47 people. The crash of that Tu-134 plane has been blamed on pilot error.
In other plane crashes involving sports teams, 75 Marshall University football players, coaches, fans and airplane crew died in a plane crash in Kentucky on Nov. 17, 1970 on the way home from a game.
Thirty members of the Uruguayan rugby club Old Christians were killed in a crash in the Andes in 1972.
The entire 18-member U.S. figure skating team died in a crash on their way to the 1961 world championships in Brussels.
In 1949, the Torino soccer team lost 18 players near Turin, Italy, while the Munich air crash of 1958 cost eight Manchester United players their lives.
– With files from The Canadian Press
Statement from the Vancouver Canucks:
The Vancouver Canucks, the team Demitra spent two seasons with, released the following statement following the news of his passing today.
“It is with great sadness that we learn of the sudden passing of Pavol Demitra and his colleagues of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club today. Pavol was dedicated and passionate about his young family and the game of hockey. Pavol was a valued teammate and member of our organization and will be sorely missed. We send our deepest condolences to the entire Demitra family and their friends so affected by this tragedy.”