Russian hockey has been stunned by news of a plane crash which has killed almost all of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s team as they travelled to Belarus for their opening fixture of the KHL season.
A club spokesman confirmed that the aircraft was carrying the club’s players to their game with Dinamo Minsk, which was due to be played on Thursday.
Among those on board was newly-appointed head coach Brad McKrimmon, recently arrived from Chicago Black Hawks to take charge of the team for the 2011-12 season. Two members of the World Championship-winning Czech team of 2010, Jan Marek and Josef Vasicek, were also among those in the crash.
The team’s Yak-42 crashed on take-off from Yaroslavl’s Tunoshna airport shortly after 4 pm Moscow time. Preliminary information from Rosaviatsiya suggests that the plane failed to gain height after leaving the runway and collided with a navigation beacon before coming to earth about 2 km from the airport.
As news filtered through to Ufa, where the league was celebrating the start of the new season with the traditional rematch of last season’s grand final, the game was abandoned.
KHL president Alexander Medvedev interrupted play 15 minutes into the first period to announce the tragedy to a packed arena, which responded in shocked silence.
After a brief meeting between the players and officials of hosts Salavat Yulaev, guests Atlant Moscow Region and representatives of the KHL, the game was postponed.
That decision was greeted with respectful applause from the crowd, while Medvedev went on to pledge his support for the Yarolslavl club.
“We will do all that we can to ensure that top level hockey continues in Yaroslavl and that Lokomotiv remains one of the strongest clubs in the Kontinental Hockey League,” he said.
The tragedy brought sympathy and support from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is heading to Yaroslavl for an annual political forum.
His press secretary, Natalya Timakova, announced that the forum’s program would change and Medvedev would begin by visiting the scene of the disaster and holding an emergency meeting with senior transport officials.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s transport minister, Igor Levitin, to go straight to the crash site.
International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel said it was "the darkest day in the history of our sport".
“Despite the substantial air travel of professional hockey teams, our sport has been spared from tragic traffic accidents,” Fasel added. “But only until now. This is the darkest day in the history of our sport. This is not only a Russian tragedy, the Lokomotiv roster included players and coaches from ten nations.”
Fasel will arrive in Russia on Thursday in a pre-arranged visit, and told IIHF.com he would take the opportunity to mourn with the Russian hockey authorities.
The Russian Hockey Federation also published a message of sympathy on its website: “The FHR expresses its deepest condolences to the bereaved families and relatives, fans and the entire hockey community”.
Lokomotiv had been traveling to Minsk for its opening fixture against Dinamo, due to be played on Thursday evening.
A decision on whether to play Thursday’s other hockey games has not yet been taken.