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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.

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After the crash, Mr. Yakovlev rejected a KHL offer to craft a replacement team assembled with players from other KHL teams, along with some of Lokomotiv’s junior players. Instead, the junior team played last year in Russia’s Major Hockey League – the country’s top minor league, all with the hope of returning to the top flight this season.

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And return they did, bouncing back even stronger than management had hoped.

“I knew we would have a good team; Mr. Yakovlev has been active signing good players. But even I’m surprised how quickly this team has gelled,” explains Mr. Rowe.

'A season dedicated to those guys'

Rowe cites a form of divine intervention for the team’s success. "I'm not being strange when I say this, I think we're getting some help from up above in the type of season we're having."

They're definitely looking out over us, and it's a good feeling," he says. "There's a calmness over this team every night that I haven't been around too often, and it's an awful lot of fun to be a part of it.”

Rowe was particularly impacted by the tragedy, being a friend of Brad McCrimmon, the team's Canadian coach who died in the crash. Mr. McCrimmon was set to start his first season with the team.

Russian Viktor Kozlov was playing for another team, Salavat Yulaev, last year when league commissioner Alexander Medvedev interrupted its first game to announce to disbelieving fans and players alike what had happened just a bit earlier in the day in Yaroslavl.

“I was shocked by the news. We all were. We couldn’t believe it,” says Mr. Kozlov, who plied his skills for years in the NHL.

Now, a year later, Kozlov is with Lokomotiv. Kozlov says he joined the team, partly for the chance to be part of the team’s rebirth. He says although life goes on, the former team must not be forgotten. 

He points to a charity match played earlier in the year in Zlin, in the Czech Republic. That was the hometown of Karel Rachunek, one of three Czech players to die in the crash. "Yeah, of course, we remember the guys, like Karel Rachunek, with the game with Zlin."

Canadian Mark Flood says the constant reminders – including the ringing of a bell before each home game to honor the fallen players – are all part of what motivates the team. 

"Every home game we have a little ceremony for the team that passed away last year. So, we're reminded of it every day," explains Mr. Flood. "Definitely our season is dedicated to those guys."

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