MOSCOW – Russian hockey marks a sad anniversary on Friday, 7th September, with the entire country’s program suspended to honour those killed in last year’s Yaroslavl air disaster.
From the league’s opening game on Tuesday, which was preceded by a poignant roll call of those who perished, to a day of Lokomotiv-themed tributes broadcast on KHL TV to mark last year’s tragedy, officials have acted to ensure that the memory of the players, coaches and staff of the club remains as bright as ever.
In the Volga city itself, which was left reeling when the flight taking its team to the season opening in Minsk fell to earth on take-out, Friday will see a series of memorial events for the families of the 44 people who died in the tragedy, while the team’s fans are planning to their own commemoration outside Arena 2000.
The club events will begin with a requiem mass for the dead at Yaroslavl’s Assumption Cathedral, before prayers at the city’s main cemetery and a visit to the crash site near the village of Tunoshna for a memorial service. It is expected that representatives of the families of almost everyone on the aircraft will be present, from Russia and far beyond: only the families of Jan Marek and Pavol Demitra have been unable to attend.
As befits the solemn and emotional occasion, supporters have been asked to give the players’ families and friends time and space to remember their loved ones, while at 4pm, the time of the crash, the principle public event is set to bring together followers of the club for a silent march along Moskovski Prospekt, the main road from the city centre to the club’s arena.
Outside the rink, fans plan to release balloons into the sky in memory of their lost heroes, while a new range of memorial stickers and posters bearing the club’s logo and the date of the disaster is being handed out across the city.
After that, a memorial game between two all-star veterans teams representing Russia and the Rest of the World, attended by Russian Hockey Federation president Vladislav Tretiak, KHL president Alexander Medvedev and a galaxy of world hockey stars. Before the game a memorial jersey for Lokomotiv 2011 will be raised in the arena – the first of several permanent monuments planned for the team in the city.
Far from the raw emotions of Yaroslavl itself, meanwhile, the 2012-13 Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team made a winning return to top-level hockey in Novosibirsk. The team’s 5-2 success, delivered thanks in no small part to Staffan Kornwall’s 2+1=3 point haul, also featured a significant contribution from several younger players who carried the team’s flag in the MHL and VHL during the dark days of last season.
For one of them, Danil Apalkov, the day was especially memorable – the young forward grabbed his first KHL goal to complete the scoring early in the third and justify the faith that head coach Tom Rowe has shown in him and his youthful colleagues.
Prior to the game, Sibir’s own passionate fans – more than 7,000 of them filling the arena – chanted for Loko at length, welcoming the team back into the league. And, despite seeing their team lose, the home crowd rose as one at the final siren to cheer Lokomotiv’s winning return.
Kazakh national team goalie Vitali Kolesnik and Canadian defenceman Mark Flood discuss as the new Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team wins its first game at Sibir Novosibirsk. Photo: Boris Volkov / RIA Novosti
The traveling Yaroslavl contingent, small but loyal despite a journey that straddles two continents, also came. “One year ago it was a tragedy,” one of them, Sasha, told Sovetski Sport. “But we are a family, and families come together in difficult times. This team is new, almost stranger to us, but I’m sure that will change, and we’ve travelled to support the guys from our hearts. Today the result isn’t important.”
Elsewhere, the result was important: the win was well received by hockey fans all over Russia, drawing cheers when the score was announced at other games played on Thursday and reinforcing the sense that this season, Lokomotiv will be everyone’s “second team”.
Meanwhile, CSKA’s defender Alexander Guskov, a native of Yaroslavl and a former Loko player, praised the club for doing the right thing in the aftermath of the tragedy and waiting for a year before bringing the team back to the top level.
“If Yaroslavl was left without hockey the town would lose its heart,” he to R-Sport. “Hockey fans there are like no others in the world. But it was right that they didn’t revive the team right away. I can’t imagine how it would have been possible to play, to sit in the same locker room, just a few weeks after it all happened. In short, they did the right thing.”
In the days leading up to the anniversary several relatives of the players and coaches who died have spoken to the Russian media to share their memories of their loved ones. Alexander Galimov, Sanka, was the only player to survive the initial crash, only to die of his injuries in hospital five days later. His father, Saidgerei, lives just five miles from the crash site, and rushed to the scene.
“I was at home with my wife in Sopelki when I heard, and I jumped in the car,” he told Sovetski Sport. “I arrived on the other side of the river and began to swim towards the burning aircraft. I didn’t notice the cold, I just swam. When I got to the shore there was a little circle, but no Sanka. The rescuers found me there, and told me Sanka was still alive. They said that he had pulled Sizov [the flight engineer who was the sole survivor of the crash] from the plane and tried to save another pilot, but it was too late.
“I never spoke to Sanka again. He was in an artificial coma, and we could only watch him through the glass in the hospital. It was only later I learned how the whole city was desperately hoping he would pull through.”
Memorial at the Leontyevskoye cemetery in Yaroslavl. Photo: Pavel Lysenkov
Diana Karpovetseva, widow of former player and then assistant coach at Lokomotiv, Alexander Karpovetsev, was pregnant with their second child at the time of the disaster. Following the birth of their son, Diana chose not to name him Alexander, recalling how her husband had suggested Yegor instead.
“I still dream that our son Yegor will grow up to be a hockey player,” Diana told Sovetski Sport. “I will do everything for this. For now I am helping my parents in Novosibirsk, but when Yegor is older I think we will go back to Moscow and enrol him in one of the great Moscow hockey school. His father was an outstanding player, and these genes should not go to waste.”
Leonid Tkachenko, father of Lokomotiv captain Ivan, spoke of plans to start building a hockey training centre in his son’s memory. Follow last year’s tragedy it emerged that Ivan had quietly devoted much of his spare time and income to charitable work helping disadvantaged youngsters – something he had deliberately kept from the public eye.
“I didn’t even know about it myself, that Ivan was helping these children,” Leonid said. “It turns out only two people knew about it, and he swore them to secrecy, saying he would no longer speak to them if they spread the word.” Plans for the hockey school have been sent to a construction firm, and Leonid hopes that work will start soon.
The tragedy touched the entire hockey world – players and coaches from many major hockey nations were involved in the disaster, and the days that followed saw heartfelt sympathy and gestures of support from all over the world. And the shock and hurt has not just affected hockey players: in Russia the national football team is planning to hold a tribute to Lokomotiv before Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland, while the Shinnik Yaroslavl team paid its own tribute ahead of Thursday evening’s league game.
On the eve of the anniversary it was reported that Russia’s investigative committee had charged the deputy director of the airline responsible for Lokomotiv’s fateful flight. Investigators have charged Vadim Timofeyev, of the Yak Servis charter airline, with violating traffic and operational safety rules.
In particular detectives believe that the two pilots, Andrei Somolentsev and Igor Zhevelov were given permission to take control of the Yak-42 despite lacking the necessary training and qualifications to fly the aircraft, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported.
Earlier reports had suggested that the crash may have been caused because one of the pilots kept his foot on the brakes during take-off, making it impossible for the plane to reach the necessary speed. Zhevelov had previously only flown Yak-40 aircraft, where pilots are expected to keep their feet on the pedals during take-off, rather than on the floor in the Yak-42. The operating license for Yak Servis was cancelled after the Sep. 2011 crash.
Dynamo Moscow got the verdict in the season’s curtain raiser – overcoming Avangard Omsk in a shoot-out after a 2-2 tie that was as hard-fought as last year’s final series. But elsewhere the opening games were characterized by some shock results, none more than Spartak Moscow’s 1-0 win at CSKA.
In a game that was set up for Alexander Radulov to justify his expensive summer transfer from Salavat Yulayev Ufa, it was Spartak goalie Sergei Borisov who hit the headlines with a 35-save shutout. Radulov managed just one shot on goal; Stanislav Zhmakov got the decisive goal.
There was little joy for Radulov’s old team-mates either, as they lost in a shoot-out at home to perennial struggler Vityaz Chekhov, while SKA St. Petersburg also slipped up on its own ice, losing 2-1 to Avangard. Among the league’s newcomers, Ukrainian entry Donbass Donetsk won the debutants’ duel in Slovakia at Slovan Bratislava 4-2, while Lev Prague won 2-1 at home to Dinamo Riga.
A story on Slovan Bratislava, the first traditional club team to leave its league for the KHL, will be published this weekend.