Tragedy in the Hockey family

Early yesterday morning, another tragedy struck the hockey community when a plane carrying an entire team of KHL athletes, trainers, coaches and staff, crashed during takeoff on the opening day of the KHL season.

The entire team was onboard, and all but two passengers died in the crash, though both are in critical condition.  There are plenty of graphic images that can be found online, including video from the crash site.  I was shocked, horrified, and saddened when I heard the news, and I’m not sure I still have a grasp of the emotions a tragedy like this brings up, or how I can convey these feelings through the written word.

Forty-three people died yesterday.  Included in that number is Josef Vasicek, a former Carolina Hurricane and Stanley Cup winner.  Mike Sundheim of the Hurricanes wrote a wonderful piece about him.  Another NHL prospect on the plane was Alexander Vasyunov, a New Jersey Devils prospect who spent the past three seasons in the AHL.  Vasyunov, 23, had returned to his hometown of Yaroslavl to play for Lokimotiv.  Vasyunov’s passing hit close to home, personally, because he is just one year younger than former Charlotte Checker, Oskar Osala, who also decided to play overseas this year in the KHL instead of staying in North America to compete for an NHL roster spot.

Tragedies involving sports and travel are, unfortunately, not a new thing.  In 1958, seven members of the Manchester United Football Club died in a plane crash in Munich.  Two other major air tragedies have occurred in Russia, in 1950 when 11 players of the Air Forces Hockey Club died, and in 1979 when a mid-air collision killed 17 Russian football players.

Tragedies closer to home, but no more or less tragic include the 1970 Marshall University plane crash that killed the entire football team which was headed back to West Virginia following a game against East Carolina University.  Also on the flight were booster club members, media, and other members close to the football program.

Another terrible event was the Hendrick Motorsports plane crash in 2004 which killed four members of the Hendrick family, and six others all closely involved with the team and the sport of NASCAR.  Pilot error resulted in the plane crashing into a mountainside near Martinsville, Virginia.  In the years I worked for NASCAR, my eyes were never able to avoid a glance at that mountain when I worked races, and to this day, it’s a hard track for me to visit.

Grieving for the victims are friends, family, former teammates.  A city who’s passion for the sport rested on their shoulders.  I can not begin to imagine what those close to the tragedy are feeling.  Because it only gets worse from here, when business decisions regarding the entire season of league-wide play, and what to do when a plane crash kills your entire organization are going to rip those wounds back open.  Because unfortunately, in the business world, the death of a team doesn’t mean that the world can stop for them.  No amount of time, moments of silence, or pre-game tributes will be able to erase the tragedy.

The Pittsburgh Penguins clearly didn’t give the tragedy a lot of thought because they went through with their press conference to discuss Sidney Crosby.  While I realize Crosby is a huge name, and deservedly so for his on-ice skills, is it really a discussion worth having hours after 43 members of the Hockey family lost their lives?  His concussion is, of course, a devastating injury for his team and the NHL, but it just seems insensitive to be promoting his own personal injury in the wake of an event like that of the plane crash in Yaroslavl.

Speculation is already coming out involving what the league is going to do to salvage the season.  Will Lokimotiv play this year?  Will the KHL hold what is essentially an “expansion” draft and pluck individuals from the remaining 25 teams in order to have a full playing roster?  What is the best plan of action?  Is it better to let the city mourn for a year and not have a team, or do you press forward and make “life go on” despite the pain?  What about the business and sponsors and season ticket holders in Yaroslavl?  I have no idea what the right answer is, but I couldn’t help thinking of myself, however selfish that may be, and put myself in their place.

Because what if this tragedy had happened here, in Charlotte?  What if the AHL lost an entire team?  What would North America do, if faced with an event of this magnitude?

In 2009, the River Rats (a squad that included MANY current and past Charlotte Checkers) bus was in an accident on a snowy Massachusetts highway.  Five players were hospitalized, with major injuries.  Casey Borer suffered a broken neck, and missed nearly a full year of playing.  Joe Jensen’s concussion sidelined him for the remainder of the 2008-09 season, and the next.  He returned to professional hockey last year in Italy.  Nicolas Blanchard’s life-threatening injuries could have been much worse if the gash to his midsection had been a few inches in any other direction.  Like the rest of that victims of the bus accident, they are all lucky to have their lives, and their livelihood of being professional athletes still in tact.

I don’t know how the KHL is going to proceed.  It’s a league that has been faced with bad press for it’s management and policies.  According to Oskar Osala, the league is  going to take over transportation of the 26 (rather, now, 25) clubs, which previously handled their own travel arrangements.  The skeptic in me is not sure this will matter, since things such as Alexei Cherenapov’s death leave a lot of questions in the medical care and policies regarding them in the KHL.  Questions arose after he died on the bench during a game as to weather there was adequate medical care before, after and during the crisis and if the event could have (and should have!) been avoided altogether.  Will this latest tragedy make former NHL players reconsider going overseas for a few years of big-money contracts?  Only time will tell, and it’s all too much to even begin to speculate on.

For now though, I will continue to mourn.  There have been too many lives lost this off-season, from players who battled depression and took their own lives, to this most recent tragedy in Russia. Every athlete, fan and friend of the sport needs time to mourn.

Rest in Peace, Lokimotiv.  You are in my prayers.



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