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.
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.
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.
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.
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."