Today is the fifth anniversary of a terrible tragedy. A day when the entire hockey world remembers Lokomotiv, and the team that was destined never to reach the ice…
It’s already been five years since that dreadful plane crash in Yaroslavl killed the players and coaching staff heading to Lokomotiv’s first game of the season in Minsk. The pain, the bitterness, the mourning – none of it has gone away. The entire city, the whole country, the wide world of hockey remembers each of those guys today. Great players and, more important, great people. True friends, responsible fathers and good sons. Everyone can find an appropriate tribute for the players we lost on September 7, 2011.
Any Loko fan will tell you that the team are true heroes in a city with a thousand years of history. Over the years the players have thrilled Yaroslavl with their hockey skills and their dedication to duty. They always fought for the honor of the club and the city. This cannot be forgotten. Everyone from Yaroslavl can be proud that they had the chance to get to the arena and watch the team, witnessing some of the greatest sportsmen of our time.
On the way into town from one of Yaroslavl’s suburbs, you can’t miss a huge slogan graffitied on a concrete fence: “Lokomotiv – a part of every family.” For the city and its surroundings, the team is more than just a club or a hockey team. The tragedy of 2011 struck every house, every family. Fives years ago, an endless stream of people headed to Arena 2000 day after day following the disaster. They laid flowers at the impromptu ‘Wailing Wall’ of the team’s home arena. Stickers commemorating the tragedy appearing in the windows of every car in the city; a sea of people wore their Lokomotiv colors to work. Fans and players of every team in the KHL headed to Yaroslavl to be a part of the final journey of the team.
“Memories, memories … Of course Yaroslavl still remembers and still grieves,” Alexander Meshares told khl.ru. He’s one of Lokomotiv’s most prominent fans, a regular at games since 1965. “It’s not easy to come to terms with something like this. Even today, when I think of that Black September, it sends a shiver down my spine. You can never forget something like that.”
Alexander falls silent before beginning to tell the team’s story. And every fan in Yaroslavl has a lot of stories like this. This was truly a people’s team and it hit the city hard to lose it.
“They had a real shot at winning the Gagarin Cup that season. We had a strong roster before, then we added [Jan] Marek, [Ruslan] Salei, [Stefan] Liv and other players. The mood among the players was upbeat, everyone was primed for success,” Meshares added.
Mama, you’ll see a whole new team
Memories of the team, and the tragedy, are still powerful. The families of some of the players who died spoke to khl.ru about that summer and the hopes of their sons for the coming season.
“My son was so excited about the start of the new season. We hadn’t had such a good team for ages,” said Lyudmilla Klyukina, the mother of Nikita. “He often talked about how this roster had a strong spirit, nobody in the locker room was killing the buzz, everyone got on, they supported each other and were united in pursuit of a single goal.”
Although he was just 22 years old, Nikita was preparing for his fourth season with the first team. Klyukin had quickly established himself as the center for the fourth line and was looking to cement himself in a more prominent role.
“He was such a good guy, we even used to tease him because of it. We used to joke that he needed to fight a bit more when he played hockey. Just before that fateful flight to Minsk he phoned me and said: ‘Mama, tomorrow you’ll see a new team … and a new me.’ I didn’t really know what he met; I guess he wanted to show us that he was able to fight. But we never got to see that … “He spoke highly of his coaches and the new players. He became friends with Robert Dietrich, who had arrived from Germany, and helped him to learn some Russian. Away from the rink he was friends with Genka Churilov, Alexander Kalyanin, Vitaly Anikeyenko,” Lyudmila added.
Many people talked up Lokomotiv’s prospects that season: the management, the players and the fans made no secret of the fact that Yaroslavl expected nothing less than the cup. Many fans felt that they merely had to wait and take pride in the fact that the sought-after trophy would be delivered by their guys.
“Sasha was really optimistic, the team was getting stronger,” Saidgerey Galimov, father of Alexander, told khl.ru. “Basically, everything was going how my son had hoped: he’d got a call-up for team Russia, he had a new contract with his home-town team. He had offers from Dynamo, from Ak Bars, from Magnitogorsk, but Loko always came first. He went to the club president, outlined his terms and signed a new contract without hesitation. He was even beginning to dream of getting the chance to play in the Sochi Olympics.”
Galimov had long been away from the national team due to injury. At last Vyacheslav Bykov brought him into the team for the Euro Hockey Tour, but couldn’t find a place for him as a forward and asked him to play in defense.
“Sasha told Bykov: ‘I don’t mind playing in goal, just give me a chance to play for my country.’ I don’t remember who he was paired with in the end, it was one of the more experienced defensemen. But Sasha told me that he was always asking to be allowed to go and join the offense – he’s a forward, after all, he can’t play any other way,” his father added.
Galimov was one of the symbols of Yaroslavl, an indelible part of the city. Strolling along the riverbanks, wandering through the historic streets or sitting in a café – you’d see Sasha everywhere. It might have been 2008 or 2009 when I bumped into Sasha myself one summer’s day in town. I asked him about his holiday plans.
“I went to the beach. We played football with Ovechkin!”
There was a sincere joy in that phrase, a delight that little Sasha Galimov got the chance to play with the great Ovechkin. Despite being a top player himself, and an icon in his native city, Galimov never lost touch with his roots. It was just impossible for him; he still felt the same emotions as any regular guy in Yaroslavl. The memory still brings tears to my eyes.
“I can’t even really say who he was close to on the team,” added his father. “From what I recall, practically everyone called at our house, he treated everyone the same and worked hard to build a good relationship with every player. It was the same with the fans. You can find loads of photos on the internet where he’s posing with fans. That famous photo of him on the ice with his daughter came about at a meeting with the fans. Brad McCrimmon, the head coach, was there, and everyone was asking Sasha to bring out his daughter. So they came onto the ice together, and that photo became part of how he was remembered,” Saidgerey added.
My son lives on at the Arena
Memorials near the airport, in the cemetery, at Arena-2000. The whole of Yaroslavl and a big part of the wider hockey world visits these sacred sites on September 7 every year. Standing amid a sea of lilies, with tears in their eyes, bearing candles in an eerie silence. On that day the city mourns. Restaurants turn off their music, nightclubs close their doors. The KHL suspends play. The fans show sensitivity, keeping their distance from the cemeteries where families are remembering their loved ones, husbands, fathers, sons.
“It’s really hard for me to come to Yaroslavl, even though I don’t live all that far away in Rybinsk [about 100km away],” Maxim Shuvalov’s mother, Svetlana, told khl.ru. “Every time I find myself here I start hoping for a miracle, as if Max is going to come around the corner with his team-mates. But miracles don’t happen …”
Maxim was the youngest player on the plane. An emerging star, just 18 years old. McCrimmon had said that Shuvalov deserved his chance and Max himself was preparing to embark on a new chapter in his life.
“He was very methodical, he set himself tough targets. When he was called into the first team, my son was thrilled. After training he came home full of excitement about what he was learning from his senior teammates. My son just wanted to live at the rink and, as it turned out, that’s where he’ll always live on,” recalled Svetlana.
“I always used to tell him to read, to study, so that he’d be able to string two words together in an interview. And he was making progress. At school Max was doing fine, no black marks. Nikita Klyukin and Sergei Ostapchuk, two other young players, helped him a lot on the team. I always used to tell him to listen to what Nikita said and remember it,” added Maxim’s mother.
Yaroslavl always takes pride in its own. Fans applaud Sergei Mozyakin, celebrate Ilya Gorokhov’s Gagarin Cup success with Dynamo and closely follow the progress of those who headed to the NHL. On game day you’ll find dozens of fans wear the jerseys of North American teams with the names of Anisimov, Varlamov or Kulikov on the back. Nobody here forgets their own and is always happy to see them come back from Canada and the USA.
“Sasha was really struck by how the fans welcomed him at an open training session before the season,” said Lyubov, the mother of Alexander Vasyunov. “He was really happy to be back in Yaroslavl, back home at his own club.”
Alexander returned from North America but hadn’t given up on the NHL. He hoped to return after a couple of years, with more experience and a stronger game.
“He really kept in touch with his American friends and dreamed of heading back over. He was also aiming to break into the Russian national team. The coaches said they hoped to see him playing for his country,” Lyubov added. Lyubov Vasyunova can often be seen in the Leontievsky Cemetery, where this loving mother carefully tends the grave of her son and his teammates. “I go to Tunosha [airport] and to the cemetery. We need to keep an eye on all the memorials, to take care of them. But I understand that some of the families can’t bring themselves to come back to the site of the tragedy. Everyone reacts in their own way,” she said.
I can’t imagine life without Yaroslavl
Visitors to Yaroslavl are always struck by the sheer number of hockey players that they find in the city. Here you might see the head coach strolling along the riverbanks, spot the top defenseman having a coffee or catch up with a former Loko player resting on a park bench. That’s why Yaroslavl is a special place. Pretty much everyone who plays here is drawn back, regardless of whether they were born here or came from the other side of the world.
Jan Peterek was the first foreigner to play for Yaroslavl. “I’ve come back here every year since the tragedy,” he told khl.ru. “Two years ago, with my wife Lada, I brought my kids here so they could see where I spent three great seasons and some of my best friends are buried.
‘Maybe you think I’m too young and talented to die?’
I can’t answer for the accuracy of the quote, but it’s roughly what Vanya Tkachenko used to tell his wife, who was terrified of flying. When Ivan sat next to her on a plane, heading off to a hockey tournament, he used to tell her just that. Such is fate. Today if you ask any fan which was the most talented line in Yaroslavl, everyone will mention Peterek, Sergei Korolev and Ivan Tkachenko. Their game left their opponents’ heads spinning, with goals, hits and assists in all flavors.
“My wife got friendly with Marina Tkachenko, Ivan’s wife,” recalled Jan. “They were always in touch before and after the tragedy. Of course, now they are in contact even more often. We absolutely didn’t want September 7 to change anything in our friendship.”
This tragedy touched people everywhere – in the USA, Sweden, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Canada – the whole hockey world came together to remember this team and come to Yaroslavl.
“Every time we come to Yaroslavl we visit the cemetery,” Jan added. “I can’t imagine making the trip and not going there. I go up to the grave, stand there and talk to Ivan. And we always drink Slivovitz, a typical Czech drink that Ivan really loved. I always bring a bottle with me specially. Whenever I go there I get a strange feeling, like there’s someone missing.”
Tkachenko is another symbol of Yaroslavl. He’s the darling of the fans, and everyone who knew him will tell you how he was one of the good guys. If you head out of town on Dzerzhinsky Prospekt you’ll see another huge slogan dedicated to Tkachenko. It marks the house where he lived.
“Ivan was someone really close to me,” added Jan. “We had the same interests, the same views on life. We liked the same music, bands like Depeche Mode or Linkin Park. I’ll always remember how we were in Switzerland for the Spengler Cup and suddenly Vanya realized that he’d never tried downhill skiing. David Moravetz and I decided to teach him. When we were going up the chairlift I told Ivan I was a bit chilly … and then I saw he was literally shaking from cold! I asked him what he was wearing and it turned out he just had some summer trousers and nothing underneath! He showed me his legs – they were frozen, bright red. Even so, he didn’t want to turn back, even if he couldn’t feel his legs. When he set out to do something, he wanted to finish it.”
It was a great team
An equestrian center in the Zavolzhsy district of Yaroslavl in 2002. Arriving for riding lessons, you can find an old man with a kindly, familiar face. Vladimir Vujtek honed his own riding skills and aimed to bring Lokomotiv along for a team-building exercise. It turned out that Vujtek was the team’s last coach before the tragedy and, as he said, he left it in good hands.
“It was really great to work with such talented hockey players: Demitra, Vasicek, Tkachenko, Rahunek, Galimov, Churilov. I’ve only got good words for all of them. They were all professionals and played with pride. They were incredible players, wonderful guys, they themselves understood exactly what was needed,” Vujtek told khl.ru.
Earlier Vujtek often came to Yaroslavl. People here are fond of him, gratefully remembering the two championships he won with Lokomotiv. And Vujtek himself loved coming here, where there was always a warm welcome.
“Today I rarely get back to my favorite town, even though I spent some of my best years – in hockey and in life – in Yaroslavl. The plane crash left a deep scar in my heart. In that moment I, like everyone in hockey, lost some good friends and comrades. After all that it’s hard to force myself to come back here,” he added.
We feel a responsibility
Even five years on, the spirit of that team can be felt all over Yaroslavl. Monuments, memorial plaques, stickers on cars. Fans still wear jerseys with the names of the players who were killed. Today’s Lokomotiv is built on players whose idols are gone. Everyone in Yaroslavl knows, that Pavel Kraskovsky chose number 63 in memory of Josef Vasicek. Everyone knows that many players who grew up in Yaroslavl hurried back here to play after the tragedy. Nobody can overlook this. The current head coach, Alexei Kudashov, was also part of that team. He played in finals with those guys, celebrated victories and suffered defeats and simply lived the life of the city and its team. Many players have spoken about how it can be difficult to come to Yaroslavl since the tragedy. The atmosphere, the sense of responsibility – it all piles up the pressure.
“When I came here I understood the situation, I understood the atmosphere that can bear down on you,” he said. “The echoes of the disaster can be felt even today, especially on September 7. It shattered a tradition in Yaroslavl and it will be very hard to bring it back.
“Anyone who knew those guys, anyone who was with them at this club will find it hard to play here. But it’s no accident that I talk about traditions – many guys came here from other towns, they weren’t part of Yaroslavl and its hockey school, so they found it a bit easier. Maybe it’s a good thing that they don’t fully feel that pressure, but they still understand the responsibility that lies upon us. We understand that we have to do justice to those guys.”
Their memory will live forever
One year, two, five, even ten – it makes no difference. The tragedy still brings tears; people still mourn amid a sea of flowers of Lokomotiv memorabilia. Again, people pass by with blank stares. The atmosphere is funereal. On September 7, from early morning to late night, Yaroslavl and its hockey lovers honor the memory of the team that died.
On this day it’s hard to find words. There’s a lump in my throat, my fingers go numb. There’s a lot to say, but it’s all banal. Young husbands, fathers, friends, sportsmen, all killed in September 2011. It’s too much to take in, eve now. The pain is dulled, time begins to heal, but understanding still does not come. For every player it’s easy to find the right words to this day, because this memory can never die.
This tragedy changed everything. The world of hockey, the KHL, Yaroslavl. Families, loved ones and fans. Everything is different now.
We will always pray that they rest in peace. We will always remember.