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A year after being literally wiped out, a Russian hockey team flourishes

Last November, nearly every member of the team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was killed in a plane crash that devastated the hockey world. Today, the team is one of the KHL's best.

By Tony WesolowskyCorrespondent / December 26, 2012

The Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team poses with the father of Karel Rachunek before a friendly hockey match between PSG Zlin and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in Zlin, Czech Republic, in November. Rachunek was a member of the Lokomotiv team that was wiped out in a plane crash in November 2011. Zlin was Rachunek's hometown.

Pavel Paprskar/CTK/AP

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Prague, Czech Republic

Wooden hockey sticks smack into rubber pucks as the metal blades of skates slice through the ice. The sounds echo through an empty arena in the Czech capital Prague in late November as a visiting hockey team prepares for another game in the Kontinental Hockey League

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But this is no ordinary squad. This is Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, a Russian team that was literally wiped out last year in an air tragedy that shocked the hockey world. 

On Sept. 7, 2011, the team was set to fly to Minsk to play their first game of the new season amid high hopes of adding to its league titles from the 1990s. But the team’s plane, a Yak-42, never gained proper altitude and slammed into a tower. It went down in flames about a mile from Tunoshna Airport in Yaroslavl, Russia

Forty-five people on board died, among them some of the greats of the game, including Slovakia’s Pavol Demitra; Ruslan Salei, a hero back home in Belarus; and three Czech players with world championship medals. Only the flight engineer survived.

A government investigation found one of the pilots had literally stepped on the brakes, dragging the plane down when it should have been going up. It later emerged the pilot and co-pilot were not properly trained to fly the Yak-42, and had forged documents to prove otherwise. 

The crash provoked much soul-searching in Russia with then-President Dmitry Medvedev calling for an urgent upgrade of the country’s passenger jets.

More immediately for Lokomotiv, it left the club without its senior players or coaches. Of the entire senior roster, only one coach and one player, both of whom had stayed behind, were left.

Rebuilding

But now, just a year on, Lokomotiv is not only playing, but winning as well, sitting near the top of the Western Conference of the mostly Russian Kontinental Hockey League.

Tim Rowe, their American coach, credits Lokomotiv President Yuri Yakovlev with assembling a squad from scratch that can compete in the KHL, considered by hockey cognoscenti to be the world’s top league currently playing, as the NHL remains mired in a labor dispute between owners and players. 

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