Gone way too young

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:43 AM ET

The death of 19-year-old Alexei Cherepanov hit the hockey world hard -- Winnipeg's Wayne Fleming harder than most.

A former coach of the U of M Bisons, Fleming is the head coach of Avangard Omsk, the team Cherepanov was playing for when he collapsed during a game Monday night.

Reached at his office in Omsk last night, Wednesday morning in Russia, Fleming took a few minutes to describe the emotional rollercoaster he and the rest of the team have been on over the last 36 hours.

"Physical and emotional exhaustion," he began. "Initially, it's disbelief. And then there's great sorrow. I think there's some anger, and then you're back into a sorrow phase."

Fleming left his position as an assistant with the NHL's Calgary Flames in September to join Omsk, the most high profile team in Russia's Continental Hockey League.

COLLAPSED

The team was playing near Moscow Monday night when Cherepanov, a first-round draft pick of the New York Rangers, came to the bench after a shift and collapsed.

"All of a sudden I heard Jaromir (Jagr) yelling for help," Fleming recalled. "And I looked back and he just laid right back, collapsed and laid back on the bench."

At the time, Fleming had no idea how serious the situation was.

"They took him away from the bench, and I thought they had everything under control," he said.

"I've seen players pass out, and they bring them back."

After the game, the team found out Cherepanov was on life support.

So they gathered at a nearby church to pray.

"It was just a very strong spirit of hope and prayer," is how Fleming described the scene.

Then they got the news their teammate hadn't made it.

"Some of the guys had a real tough time. And others stayed with it, and prayed for his spirit."

Fleming had only known Cherepanov a few weeks.

But that was enough for him to realize he was coaching a special teenager, on and off the ice.

"That's the thing we have to focus on, is not the hockey player," Fleming said. "It's the quality of a young man, gone way too early. And just a real special person. There's no question he was going to play in the National Hockey League. But his humility and his respect for his teammates and the working staff and everything around him... it was neat to watch him.

"There's certain people that you gravitate to and start to share some emotional bonding with."

Fleming has two boys of his own, both in their twenties, and four kids in all. But he's on his own in Russia, his wife still back in Calgary, which hasn't made dealing with the tragedy any easier.

"You're in a foreign land with foreign customs," he said. "So there's a bit of an isolation factor, and things to observe."

FUNERAL

His next several hours would be spent with the team, first at a viewing at the Omsk arena, then at the funeral.

Eventually, he wants some answers.

Russian investigators are looking into Cherepanov's death, following reports he may not have received prompt medical attention.

Reports suggest an ambulance may not have been on hand at the time and that a defibrillator may not have been available. One Russian investigator is also quoted as saying Cherepanov suffered from a pre-existing condition which may have contributed to his death.

So many questions -- but so far, no answers.

"I'm going to know that in another day or two, here," Fleming said. "There's other things we need to get through before we move into that territory."

Territory Fleming has never travelled before.


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