It’s a simple sentiment, but it sums up the depth of feeling the people of this city on the banks of the Volga have for their hockey team. Whether following every game live in the arena, or keeping tabs on Loko’s progress via the media, almost everyone in Yaroslavl seems to know and care about what is happening in the latest bid to bring trophies to town.
That passion, though, is tinged with sadness. ‘Disaster’ and ‘tragedy’ are overused words in sports journalism, exaggeratedly applied to defensive errors or missed scoring chances. But for Lokomotiv, 10 years ago, these words were not nearly enough to express the depth of despair as the team was wiped out on the way to its opening game of the 2011-2012 season.
The story of those fateful minutes as the Yak-42 aircraft that was due to carry Lokomotiv to Minsk spluttered into the air than crashed calamitously on the riverbank just a couple of kilometres from Tunoshna Airport is well known. The horror of seeing a team wiped out reverberated around the world: the Railwaymen recruited widely, with Belarus, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Slovakia, Sweden and Ukraine all represented in its ranks. Across Russia, the pain was felt in the cities these players called home, or where they had played earlier in their careers: Omsk, Yekaterinburg, Moscow, Magnitogorsk. Across the Atlantic, friends and team-mates, fans and admirers from across the NHL were also stunned and saddened by the tragedy.
Later, visiting Yaroslavl to see Lokomotiv’s juniors bring hockey back to a shellshocked city gave a sense of the quiet dignity with which the city was paying tribute to its team. The atmosphere in the old Torpedo arena, pressed into temporary service while Arena-2000 was the focus of the official period of mourning, was phenomenally supportive and encouraging towards a group of young players bravely shouldering an incredible burden of public hope and expectation.
A decade later, that quiet dignity still pervades Yaroslavl. The memory of the 44 players, coaches, team staff and air crew who perished in the disaster is indelibly woven into the city. It can be felt at the memorials, both at the crash site and in the Leontievskoye cemetery. It’s reflected in the annual memorial services and commemorations that still close the streets in downtown, 10 years on. And, in this anniversary year, new, lasting tributes.
At the Middle School #9, almost next door to the Torpedo rink, a memorial museum is opening. Ten former pupils of the school were on the flight, including club captain Ivan Tkachenko, a man whose talent on the ice pales beside his quiet greatness off it. Poignantly, four of the youngest passengers on board that plane — Yury Urychev and Daniil Sobchenko, both 20, Artyom Yarchuk, 21, and Maxim Shuvalov, 18 — were all recent graduates from a school that now bears Tkachenko’s name.
Nearby, the captain’s childhood home is getting a facelift, with a mural five-stories high set to be unveiled in time for the anniversary. That image also includes goalie Stefan Liv, whose journey from a Polish orphanage to the KHL via his adopted family in Sweden hints at the international scope of hockey’s loss. It doesn’t stop there; last month in Bratislava, Belarus forward Yegor Sharangovich talked about how his team always makes space in the locker room for one of Ruslan Salei’s jerseys: the IIHF Hall-of-Famer remains his country’s spiritual captain a decade after his untimely demise.
And the impact crossed the Atlantic. Not just for coach Brad McCrimmon, a Stanley Cup-winning D-man with the Flames and an assistant to Bob Hartley in Atlanta before taking up the Yaroslavl offer. This was a shock that resonated throughout North America’s leagues, as friends, team-mates and opponents of those who died felt the blow — along with those who had no direct connection to the tragedy.
Current Lokomotiv forward Reid Boucher, whose 18th birthday fell the day after the crash, was in the latter group.
“Personally, I didn’t know anyone of the players and coaches who died,” he told Sport Express. “But this was a huge tragedy for the entire hockey world. Every player who was in North America at that time felt the pain of what was happening, and I was no exception.
“It’s something you can never forget. I understand perfectly well how this catastrophe was a tragedy for the city [of Yaroslavl]. I hope that this season Lokomotiv can bring some joy to Yaroslavl and win the title. That’s all we’re thinking about right now.”
For the first time since the disaster, that title bid will see Lokomotiv play on September 7. Dinamo Minsk will be the opponent in Yaroslavl on what promises to be a day full of emotion.
Players: Vitaly Anikeyenko (aged 24, Russian), Mikhail Balandin (31, Russian), Gennady Churilov (24, Russian), Pavol Demitra (36, Slovak), Robert Dietrich (25, German), Alexander Galimov (26, Russian), Marat Kalimulin (23, Russian), Alexander Kalyanin (23, Russian), Andrei Kiryukhin (24, Russian), Nikita Klyukin (21, Russian), Stefan Liv (30, Swedish), Jan Marek (31, Czech), Sergei Ostapchuk (21, Belarusian), Karel Rachunek (32, Czech), Ruslan Salei (36, Belarusian), Maxim Shuvalov (18, Russian), Karlis Skrastins (37, Latvian), Pavel Snuritsyn (19, Russian), Daniil Sobchenko (20, Russian), Ivan Tkachenko (31, Russian), Pavel Trakhanov (33, Russian), Yury Urychev (20, Russian), Josef Vasicek (30, Czech), Alexander Vasyunov (23, Russian), Alexander Vyukhin (38, Ukrainian), Artyom Yarchuk (21, Russian).
Team staff: Yury Bakhvalov (49, masseur), Alexander Belyayev (48, masseur), Alexander Karpvotsev (41, asst coach), Igor Korolev (41, asst coach), Nikolai Krivonosov (31, fitness coach), Evgeny Kunov (31, masseur), Evgeny Kuznetsov (27, masseur), Brad McCrimmon (52, head coach), Vladimir Piskunov (52, administrator), Evgeny Sidorov (43), Andrei Zimin (49, doctor)