September 7, 2011 is an infamous and tragic day for those apart of the Kontinental Hockey League. That was the day the KHL’s 2011 season was to officially begin with the Opening Cup game between the 2010 Gagarin Cup winner Salavat Yulaev Ufa and 2010 Continental Cup winner Atlant Moscow Oblast. During the first period of that contest, however, news broke that all but one member of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl were killed in a plane crash as the team traveled to Minsk, Belarus for their opening game. The tragedy caused the KHL to suspend the rest of the Opening Cup as well as all play throughout the league until September 12.
At the time, Lokomotiv were one of the premier clubs in the KHL. They were coming off of back to back appearances in the KHL Western Conference Finals, as well as an appearance in the 2009 Gagarin Cup Finals. And to add to their recent success, the club is one of the most storied sides in Russian hockey history, with their success becoming more prominent after the creation of the Russian Superleague. The team was expected to once again be a contender, and had brought in established former NHL stars to aid in that goal. Defencemen Ruslan Salei and Kārlis Skrastiņš were due to make their KHL debuts. Also making their league debut was former Detroit Red Wings assistant Brad McCrimmon, who had been named head coach on May 29, 2011.
Aboard the aging RA-42434 were 37 passengers (26 players and 11 coaches), and eight members of the flight crew. One main roster player, Maxim Zyuzyakin, and goaltender coach Jorma Valtonen were not aboard the plane. Both had been asked by McCrimmon to stay behind. The weather was no problem. The temperature sat at 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit), with a light breeze blowing in from the north. A few dark clouds were scattered throughout the sky, but otherwise, it was a clear day. At 4:05 local time, the control tower gave the pilot permission for flight, and the fuselage rolled onto the runway. And just 82 seconds later, the plane was crashing into the earth.
The aircraft landed 500 metres away from the runway, in a weeded area between a church and a river. Two policemen had been in a boat in the river as the burning plane plummeted, and within a minute of the plane’s impact, they were sifting through the burning wreckage. A paramedic from a nearby hospital rushed to the scene. The director of the airport, having been awed at the sight of the Railway Men passing through his airport, also rushed to the scene after seeing smoke fill the air. A man, attempting to peel his own burning skin off, identified himself as forward Alexander Galimov. It was only then that the first responders realized who was board the plane.
A member of the flight crew, Alexander Sizov, also survived the impact. He attempted to pull another man from the plane, but was struggling to do so. The 52-year old flight engineer had been seated near the back of the aircraft, and was ejected from his seat when the plane went down. He was not aware of the commotion around him, nor was he aware of any flames or scorching heat. Images of the accident began filling state news broadcasts, and shortly thereafter, news spread across the entire globe. Later that day, a priest stood outside the church, ringing the church bells as bodies were either unbuckled from their seats or pulled from the waters nearby. The bells didn’t stop ringing until 43 bodies were recovered in the early hours of September 8.
As news broke in Ufa, KHL officials stopped Opening Cup play. Then-KHL President Alexander Medvedev addressed the audience, informing them of the tragedy and promising that high level hockey would return to Yaroslavl. Three days later, memorial services were held, none bigger than the one held in Lokomotiv’s home arena, Arena 2000. The arena was filled with close family and friends, along with 35,000 mourners who came to honor the dead. A large gathering, estimated by local police to be near 100,000 strong, was held outside of the arena. Moments of silence and prayers were held for the deceased, and the two survivors.
As the rain fell upon the mourners outside, admist the tears and prayers, people screamed, “Galimov, live for the whole team!” Galimov, 26, was stabilized by a medical team in Yaroslavl before being transported to the Vishnevsky Institute of Surgery of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences on September 8. There, he was placed in a medically induced coma and on artificial ventilation. His wife, who he had met at Arena 2000 during her prom night, spent her 24th birthday by his side. On September 12, 2011, Galimov passed away due to the burns he sustained in the crash.
Sizov, the flight engineer who survived the crash, was released from the hospital eight weeks after the incident. In a public interview he did with Channel One, a local Russian media outlet, Sizov claimed that the passengers knew something was off when the plane didn’t immediately take off. “I quickly realized that we were on unpaved ground. The plane started falling shortly after takeoff, and it was clear that we were going to crash,” he said. He wasn’t sure whether or not the co pilots had engaged with the brakes, saying “If the pilot had slammed on the brakes, I would have felt it, but if he had engaged them slowly, I wouldn’t have.”
Rumors and speculation swirled as the hockey crazed town struggled to deal with the tragedy. The Russian president at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, blamed Yak-Service, who chartered the planes and paid the pilots. He said that Soviet era planes like RA-42434 were of “antiquated design.” Many blamed the government, arguing that the government forced the plane to take off to make room for dignitaries from foreign countries to land for the Global Policy Summit. Soon, emotions ran high, and Russian tabloids even began reporting that the airport director who went to the crash site as soon as he noticed smoke had committed suicide due to guilt.
Investigators later concluded that one, if not both, co pilots had engaged with the brakes as the plane was heading down the runway. As more power was kicked into the engine, the pilots once again engaged with the brakes, and in turn, forced the plane’s nose into such an angle that flight was made impossible. They concluded that it was likely neither of them knew they were engaging with the brakes in the first place. Investigators placed the blame on Yak-Service, accusing them of being negligent in their training. Investigators also revealed that one of the co pilots had a banned drug in their system that caused numbness in the hands and feet. Vadmin Timofeyev, the head of the Yak-Service airline, was charged with breaching air safety rules, and despite pleading not guilty, he was sentenced to five years in prison for breaching Part 3 of Article 263 of the Russian Criminal Code, governing the safe operation of aircraft resulting in the manslaughter of more than two people. His sentenced was later amnestied.
The stories surrounding some of those involved add another layer to an already tragic event. Take Ivan Tkachenko for example. Tkachenko, the former captain, was shopping with his brother the night before the crash when he received a call from his wife. She had informed him that they were expecting a son. He went home that night with a bright smile and a bottle of champagne. A man known for his contagious generosity, he was hailed for his charitable donations. Before tragedy struck, Tkachenko made one last donation, sending $16,000 to a 16-year-old girl in need of surgery. Tkachenko was the only one to have an open casket.
Yuri Urychev, who didn’t have to board the plane due to an injury he was nursing, was a top prospect for the club and had dreams of playing for the New York Rangers. An only child, his mother found out about the incident after returning from holiday in Turkey. “He was all that I had,” she told Sportsnet in December 2011. Pavol Demtria was enjoying a small career renaissance, and was hoping to provide another push towards reclaiming the top prize in Russian hockey for the Yaroslavl side. His first year with the team saw the 36-year-old former NHL all-star score 61 points in 54 games. He decided to return to the club for one last season. His career, and life, were ended when he boarded a plane that rolled off the assembly line on October 1, 1993, a mere eight days before Demitra made his NHL debut and scored his first goal.
Former NHLer Igor Korolev ended his playing career with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, and one year later, which living in Toronto, he received a phone call. The Railway Men had just hired a former Stanley Cup champion as their head coach. The only catch is that this head coach was Canadian, and didn’t speak Russian. The offer was simple: come back to Yaroslavl, bridge the gap between head coach and the locker room, and help the Railway Men claim the Gagrin Cup. After receiving his families blessing, Korolev was hired as an assistant coach.
For those who hadn’t boarded that plane, life had been flipped on its ear. A friend of Urychev, Maxim Zyuzyakin was the lone surviving member of the main Lokomotiv roster. While KHL officials wanted the team to move forward with the season, team officials decided that it would be a blow to their fanbase and the memory of that team. Instead, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl played the 2011-12 season in the Supreme Hockey League (VHL), the Russian equivalent to the American Hockey League. The team was focused around the junior players who were well known and well loved by the fanbase.
Zyuzyakin was named captain by new coach Petr Vorobiev, who had previously coached the Railway Men to the Russian Open Championship in 2002 and 2003. Zyuzyakin quickly became the face and symbol of the team’s revitalization, a role he was honored to accept. “We have to work, we have to play to the fullest extent,” he said in an interview with the Ria Novosti news agency in October 2011. “There can be no thoughts about anything else because there are a lot of expectations from us. We are the only hockey team in Yaroslavl now.”
In focusing on the younger, homegrown talent on the junior side, Yaroslavl officials honored the dead in a way better than any words myself or anyone could write. The brought life back into the fanbase, gave them something to believe in again, and helped keep Yaroslavl hockey at its peak. This team was tragically taken all too soon, but their memory will live on until hockey ceases to exist. We here at 366 Sports extend our condolences to the families involved, and wish the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl organization the best.
May everyone on that plane rest in peace.
Photo Credit: KHL Photo Agency/Getty Images