KHL tragedy's echoes widespread

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:54 AM ET

EDMONTON - “This is the darkest day in the history of our sport.”

– IIHF President Rene Fasel

When tragedy hits the world of sport it always seems to magnify the event somehow. Maybe it’s that the athletes involved are the epitome of those who, at their stage of life, see themselves and are sometimes seen to be so indestructible.

Maybe it’s because of the familiarity.

When a plane crashes in Russia, it’s seldom a massive story around the world. But when the news from Russia is “The team is gone” it affects just about everybody in a hockey nation like Canada.

Is there anybody in hockey who didn’t have some sort of connection with some member of the team?

Coaches. General managers. Scouts.

What hockey writer hasn’t interviewed one or more of those who died in the crash?

What fan hadn’t watched one of them play?

“Though it occurred thousands of miles away from our home arenas, the tragedy represents a catastrophic loss to the hockey world — including the NHL family, which lost so many fathers, sons, teammates and friends who at one time excelled in our league,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in perfectly chosen words.

Players Ruslan Salei, Pavol Demitra, Karlis Skrastins, Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Alexander Vasyunov, and assistant coaches Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev were former NHLers who died in the crash. There were players from World Juniors and World Championships.

The loss of Brad McCrimmon, of course, will affect more than the others because he was a Canadian, from Plenty, Sask., who won a Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames in 1989 and left the Detroit Red Wings as an assistant coach hoping to use a head-coaching job in the KHL to springboard him to a head-coaching job in the NHL. And he loses his life a few seconds after takeoff on the flight to coach his first KHL regular season game.

Tragic team travel catastrophes are almost signposts on the lives of everybody in the sports world who has lived the arena, hotel, airport lifestyle involved in pro sport.

How many people read the book or watched the movie Alive about the rugby team that crashed in the Andes?

Five Saskatchewan Roughriders lost their lives when their Trans-Canada Airlines flight crashed into the Rocky Mountains returning from an All-Star game in Vancouver in 1956. Their names went on Western Conference trophies for the top players which are presented to this day.

The tragedies involving Manchester United, Marshall University and Wichita State in football and so many others will be remembered today.

I covered the 1993 World Figure Skating Championships in Prague, where they brought some of the skaters back, such as Canada’s Don Jackson, who lost their chance to compete when the 1961 World Championships were cancelled due to the plane crash which claimed all 18 members of the USA team.

That was emotional.

Having attended the funeral of four Swift Current Broncos hockey players who died in a bus crash in 1986, I won’t say that until now hockey has been spared of a travel tragedy, but International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel wasn’t wrong when he made this statement either: “Despite the substantial air travel of professional hockey teams, our sport has been spared from tragic traffic accidents. But only until now.”

That said, despite the catastrophe at hand and the people involved, my thoughts Wednesday kept going to the crash of United Airlines Flight 175 10 years ago Friday, which claimed former Oil King, Oiler and Oiler scout Ace Bailey.

Bailey was somebody I’d spent significant time, on many a barstool, in the company of over the years.

That day I managed to reach Wayne Gretzky, who Bailey had mentored when No. 99 first joined the Oilers in the WHA.

Gretzky’s voice broke as he spoke.

“Ace Bailey always used to laugh at me on a plane,” said the player who was tied with broadcaster Rod Phillips as two of the worst white-knuckle fliers in hockey history.

“We ended up becoming great friends. We travelled to Europe together. He was always making fun of me on planes.

“My biggest nightmare just came true. To him.”

Ten years later it’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. To them.

Follow me on Twitter.com/sunterryjones

terry.jones@sunmedia.ca


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