10 years after the saddest day
by Andy Potts|07 SEP 2021
The memorial at the site of the plane crash of 7 September 2011 that wiped out the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl KHL team. 44 persons died in the tragedy.
photo: Pavel Lysenkov
School #9 in Yaroslavl looks like countless others across Russia. But behind its unassuming post-war facade lies a memorial to ice hockey’s most painful tragedy. A decade after the plane carrying Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s team to its first game of the 2011/12 season crashed on take-off from Tunoshna airport, the middle school is remembering its former pupils.

A simple alley of 10 birch trees commemorates 10 hockey players who studied here and went on to represent their hometown club. Each was lost on 7 September 2011. The school, just round the corner from the Torpedo rink that was hockey’s Yaroslavl home until Arena-2000 was constructed, was renamed in memory of Ivan Tkachenko – former pupil, Lokomotiv captain and a subtle ambassador for all that is good about this historic city on the banks of the river Volga.

Now, to mark the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, the ‘Hockey Brotherhood’ museum is opening as a memorial to the Lokomotiv team that was destroyed. The name is shared with the winged monument outside Arena-2000 and underpins the sense of community that links Lokomotiv and its city.

That close tie is reflected by the links between the players and their old – something that did not end after graduation. “[Tkachenko] was a good, well-rounded person in every sense of the words,” schoolteacher Marina Shipilovskaya told Yaroslavl 1 TV. “I was a pleasure to teach Vanka. And even after he left school, he always came back for our ceremonies and festivals.”

Among the first visitors to the museum were 10-graders Alexander Kuznetsov and Maxim Belousov, both part of Lokomotiv’s championship-winning U16 roster last season. Although they were in primary school when disaster struck, they have fond memories of the lost team. “Our families got to know that team,” said Kuznetsov. “We were friends with Alexander Galimov, every day he would come to visit us or we went to see him.”

“They would have won the cup if the group hadn’t been destroyed,” added Belousov. “That was a real team, they worked to the end, battled for victory. They were real brave guys.”
As well as established players on the roster, School #9 was also the alma mater of the four youngest passengers on the flight. Yuri Urychev and Danil Sobchenko had recently been part of Russia’s golden junior team in Buffalo. Artyom Yarchuk, 21, Pavel Snuritsyn, 19, and Maxim Shuvalov, 18, were more players whose bright futures were brutally cut short.

The museum aims to preserve their memories – and it was welcomed by Leonid Tkachenko, Ivan’s father. “I really like this museum,” he said. “I like the idea, and the way they’ve done it. You can see that the guys have put their hearts into creating all this.”

Immortalised on film – and on the streets

The memorial museum is only part of the 10th anniversary commemoration. This week also sees the premiere of a new documentary movie, ‘Heavenly Team’ (Nebesnaya Komanda), which aims to tell the team’s story through the eyes of ordinary fans, and the friends, family and colleagues of the players. Part of the box office receipts are intended to support the museum.
In addition, outside Ivan Tkachenko’s childhood home, a giant five-storey mural depicting the player and his team-mate, goalie Stefan Liv, is set to be unveiled in time for the anniversary. The work, created by street artist Grigori Sidyakov, also incorporates existing graffiti stencilled onto the walls of this typical Soviet-era apartment block.

Lokomotiv pays tribute

For the first time since that awful day, Lokomotiv will take to the ice and play a game on 7th September. The opposition, fittingly, is Dynamo Minsk, that destination of the ill-fated flight in 2011. When the fixtures were announced, many were surprised that Yaroslavl would host KHL hockey on the anniversary of the disaster. However, club president Yuri Yakovlev explained Lokomotiv’s decision.

“For 10 years we haven’t played on this date,” he said at the team’s pre-season press conference. “But now the time has come to give everyone – fans, players, coaches, reporters – the chance to come together in the arena to honour the memory of the guys we lost.”

Elsewhere in the city, 7th September will be marked by the usual memorial ceremonies in the city’s Uspenski Cathedral, at the crash site on the banks of the Volga river and in the Leontievskoye cemetery, as well as at Arena-2000 itself. The sense of occasion presents extra pressure for the 2021 Lokomotiv team, but head coach Andrei Skabelka believes his players will cope. “These are all adults,” he said at the same press conference. “Of course, it won’t be easy. But I think this team is up to it.”

Global grief

The repercussions of the crash were felt far beyond Yaroslavl. The victims came from all over Russia – and the world. From the banks of the Volga the tragedy touched hearts in Belarus, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Slovakia, Sweden and Ukraine as Lokomotiv lost a multi-national roster.

The death of Ruslan Salei, one of the all-time greats of Belarusian hockey, still resonates in his homeland. During last month’s Olympic Qualification tournament, Belarusian national team captain Yegor Sharangovich – widely expected to be his country’s next big NHL star – explained that Salei’s spirit remains with the team 10 years later. Echoing Alexei Kalyuzhny’s comment that every Belarusian captain since Salei was a stand-in for the IIHF Hall of Famer, Sharangovich said: “In our locker room we always hang the jersey of our captain [Ruslan Salei], who is always with our team.”

Sharangovich was speaking in Bratislava, where local hero Pavol Demitra is fondly remembered. In the aftermath of the tragedy, spontaneous tributes to one of Slovakia’s greatest ever players sprang up across the country, from Bratislava to his home city of Trencin. There were similar scenes in the Czech Republic, which lost defenceman Karel Rahunek and forwards Jan Marek and Josef Vasicek, in Latvia, to commemorate Karlis Skrastins, 12 years an NHLer before joining Loko. Goalie Stefan Liv was remembered in both Poland, his country of birth, and Sweden, where he was adopted as a two-year-old and went on to contribute to Olympic and World Championship-winning Tre Kronor teams. Like Salei, Skrastins and Liv, German defenceman Robert Dietrich was another summer acquisition who never got to play a competitive game for his new team. Veteran goalie Alexander Vyukhin, 38, was due to retire at the end of the season; the Ukrainian international’s memorial service in Omsk attracted thousands of mourners who paid tribute to an Avangard stalwart.

The tragedy also had an impact across the Atlantic. Canadian head coach Brad McCrimmon, on his way to his first competitive game behind the Lokomotiv bench, was among the victims. His assistant, Igor Korolyov, was based in Toronto with his family after a long NHL career, and many of the players had extensive NHL experience.
The Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team of 2011.
photo: Lokomotiv Yaroslavl
American forward Reid Boucher, who joined Lokomotiv this summer, was getting ready for a season in OHL and preparing to celebrate his 18th birthday on 8th September, remembered how the plane crash struck at the heart of the entire hockey community.

“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.”

The sole survivor

Of the 45 persons on board there was just one survivor of the tragedy, flight engineer Alexander Sizov, who was rescued from the river with 15% burns and several broken bones. Player Alexander Galimov, the only other passenger found alive after the crash, died five days later.

After recovering from his injuries, Sizov continued to work in aviation as a ground-based technician at the Yakovlev Design Bureau in the Moscow Region town of Zhukovski. Since his 2015 appearance as a witness at an inquest into the crash, he has kept away from publicity with he and his wife Svetlana angry about the harassment they received from some journalists in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. A year ago, Yaroslavl news site 76.ru reported that Sizov, now in his 50s, was no longer employed by the Yakovlev bureau and there was no further information about him.

Rethinking transport

Following the Yaroslavl tragedy, Russian hockey quickly revised its approach to flying teams around the country. The Ice Hockey Federation of Russia announced that it would no longer use aging Yak-42 aircrafts, like the one that crashed in 2011. And, according to former Lokomotiv player and head coach Alexei Kudashov, now with Dynamo Moscow, the disaster prompted widespread changes.

“First and foremost, people started taking the teams’ logistics – transfers, transport companies – much more seriously,” Kudashov told Izvestia. “The way we thought about aircraft changed and suddenly everybody was flying exclusively in new planes.

“Before, we often flew to road games on old planes. All that was taken much more seriously after 2011.”

This tragedy ten years ago to this day, modern hockey’s saddest moment, will never be forgotten.