Hockey fans around the world are mourning the loss of nearly the entire squad of Russian ice hockey powerhouse Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in a plane crash northeast of Moscow on Wednesday. 37 players and coaches, representing 10 different nations, are among the dead. The roster included former NHL all-stars, Olympic champions and national team standouts.
A steady stream of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl fans laid flowers and candles outside the team’s home stadium all through the night. Many attended a church service in Yaroslavl on Wednesday that was held to honor those who had died.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the crash site in Yaroslavl, calling the accident “a huge loss for the whole country, and for all hockey fans.”
That sentiment was echoed by many in Yaroslavl.
“I think we have lost some wonderful people, some great players and sportsmen,” said a fan named Yelena. “It’s a great shame. It’s tragic.
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is considered one of Russia’s top teams. It is not hard to find YouTube videos sporting the team’s red-white and blue colors, not to mention the signature sound of the locomotive.
The team’s roots stretch back to the late 1940s, but it was never really a powerhouse during the Soviet Era.
Fortunes changed in the 1990s, and the team won its first league championship in 1997, as “Torpedo Yaroslavl.” Then, in 2000, the team was purchased by the Russian state railway.
“The club was renamed Lokomotiv in 2000,” says Rafael Saakov of the BBC’s Russian Service in Moscow. “The financial support was huge, and a lot of popular players from different countries, and from Russian from the national team, came to play.”
“It was a great experience. One that I treasured,” says NHL veteran Brett Hauer, who played for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl for the 2006-2007 season.
“I didn’t know a lot about the league. I didn’t know a lot about the city. But I spoke to several people who knew about it, and they said it was one of the best organizations. They treated their players professionally, whether you’re from the US, Canada, Sweden, wherever.
“And obviously that reputation has lived on, because you see the number of international players that are playing there.”
The list of the dead reflects the global scope and talent of the team.
There’s Pavol Demitra, a three time NHL all-star from Slovakia. Goalie Stefan Liv won olympic gold with the Swedish national team in 2006.
There were three members of the Czech national team, and the team’s coach, Canadian Brad McCrimmon, played in more than 1,000 NHL games.
“Athletes are going to still come, and will still follow the superstars that are there now,” says former Lokomotiv Yaroslavl player Brett Hauer. “I’m sure the organization will be able to rebuild, but you’ll never be able to replace the people that were on the team this year.”
It is not just Lokomotiv Yaroslavl that will have to rebuild.
Two members of Russia’s national ice-hockey team were on the plane that went down yesterday, as well as two players from Russia’s world champion youth team.
Sad news, say many, as the country looks ahead to hosting the Winter Olympics three years from now.
UPDATE on September 12, 2011: The one Lokomotiv Yaroslavl player to have survived the crash, Alexander Galimov, died this morning.