The Kontinental Hockey League’s promotional machine was in top gear Wednesday thanks to a much-hyped opening matchup featuring defending champion Salavat Yulaev Ufa at home to Atlant Mytishchi, the team it beat in the final last season.
But the game was called after the first period and the four-year-old Russian league’s opening-night excitement fizzled in the wake of one of the worst air disasters in sports history.
A jet carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team to its first game in Belarus crashed after takeoff killing at least 43 people, including head coach Brad McCrimmon and former NHL Lady Byng Trophy winner Pavol Demitra.
“It was supposed to be a celebration,” long-time hockey executive Scott MacPherson, a former Torontonian and Canadian-American dual citizen who works closely with the KHL, said from Moscow. “It’s the opening night of the season and everyone’s at Ufa for the first game. The KHL (TV) network was broadcasting hockey 24 hours a day, and now, you look at the screen and it’s like ESPN News talking about the crash with a ticker updating it at the bottom.
“It’s a very sad day.”
The crash is the biggest news, not just in hockey circles, but in all of Russia. In an instant, the proud Yaroslavl club — a strong outfit in the Russian puck circuit, one former KHL star Jaromir Jagr recently called the “second-best in the world” — has been decimated.
“They had the kind of heritage over here of the Pittsburgh Penguins (in the NHL),” MacPherson said. “They had some very good players, obviously. They were flying to Minsk (Belarus) for their first game of the season where (former NHL and Lokomotiv defenceman) Ruslan Salei is a hero in that country and were going to be a showcase for the new 15,000-seat arena that was just built.”
The Yaroslavl hockey team bears the name ‘Lokomotiv’ in honour of its ties to the railway industry.
“A lot of the people in Yaroslavl work in the train business and they identified with the hockey team,” MacPherson said. “The team is a big part of the community.”
Once the shock of the tragedy wears off, the KHL will have to decide when to resume play and whether or not Yaroslavl will ice a team this season.