Amid the international outpouring of grief and shock following the Yaroslavl air disaster last month, it was easy to forget the impact of this global hockey tragedy on the local sporting community in the Russian city. Hockey in general, and Loko in particular, form a big part of the modern identity of this 1,000-year-old settlement on the banks of the Volga – and many of those killed on Sep. 7 were local lads living the dream of donning their home team’s uniform.
The return of hockey to the town, one month after the crash, was a relatively low-key affair. With the senior team still gearing up for a VHL campaign due to start in December, it was the youth squad which took centre stage as the sport made an emotional return to the ice.
Lokomotiv’s directors did not wish to see the club’s home at Arena 2000 used until the traditional 40-day mourning period was complete. The modern stadium will remain closed until Sunday’s memorial service, so the first home games in the Molodyozhnaya Liga were shifted to the 800-capacity training rink, Torpedo. And while the emphasis was on “business as usual” for the visits of Beliye Medvedi from Chelyabinsk and Omskiye Yastreby, there were plenty of hints of a city still in shock and pain over the events of one month ago.
Even on the way to the game, the reminders of the disaster were clearly visible, posters on lamp-posts bearing the simple message: “Pomnim, Lyubim, Skorbim” (We remember, we love, we mourn). In front of the arena the Lokomotiv club flag flutters proudly, but trails black streamers; on the office door a typed A4 poem adorned with a black ribbon remembers the “real men who played hockey”, evoking one of Russia’s favorite sporting songs.
The Loko youth team was also touched by the tragedy: six young players had been included in the ill-fated squad to go to Minsk at the start of the season, and all those involved in the squad had lost friends and colleagues. For those left to play on, returning home after a series of away games brought additional pressure. Maxim Zyuzyakin (pictured), the captain of Loko, told journalists: “We are carrying a lot of expectation, we are the only hockey team in Yaroslavl now. We cannot think about anything except hockey, we owe it to the people who believe in us.”
Zyuzyakin also pointed to the level of support the youth team had enjoyed in the town, and that was clear among the crowds who came to the matches on Friday and Sunday. The opening game against Beliye Medvedi drew a crowd so large that the arena’s staff was struggling to get everyone safely into the building; by Sunday the numbers had eased slightly but the emotion was scarcely any less. “It’s a strange feeling,” Zhenya told me. “Nothing can ever replace what we have lost here, but it’s good to see a team from Yaroslavl back on the ice.”
He also supported the club’s decision not to cobble together a new roster in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. All the KHL’s teams had offered to release players to Lokomotiv to keep the team in the league, but the club management opted to wait and rebuild slowly. “It’s the right thing to do,” Zhenya added. “This way, we’re creating a real Yaroslavl team again. It’s our city, our club and I think the fans want to feel that the players represent us. Bringing in people from outside, it’s a nice gesture, but this way is closer to the city.”
On the ice, the team is still feeling its way back to top form – understandably given the highly emotional circumstances surrounding them. Against Beliye Medvedi – a team Loko’s youngsters have never beaten – the game went to an epic shoot-out before the visitors won after sharing 16 penalties. Two days later against Omskiye Yastreby there was no hint of a sympathy vote from the opposition.
From the start, Yastreby were on the front foot and deservedly took the lead on 08:24. Although Loko rallied, they could not find a way past impressive visiting goaltender Eduard Reizvikh – who made 40 saves – and ended up losing 2-0. But the result mattered less than the fact that hockey is back in town: modern sport rarely has time for old ideals, but for once it truly was the taking part that counted.
Andy Potts, special to khl.ru