li-russia-funeral-ap-012498

The coffins of many of the victims of the Russian plane crash that wiped out most of a hockey team this week are lined up at a memorial service in Yaroslavl on Saturday. (Misha Japaridze/Associated Press)

With mounds of flowers and rivers of tears, tens of thousands of people flocked to a memorial ceremony Saturday for the victims of the Russian plane crash that devastated a top ice hockey team.

Mourners including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin poured into the team's arena in the western Russian city of Yaroslavl to place flowers near coffins containing remains of players and staff of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team. Many were draped in the team's red, white and blue colours.

Wednesday's crash of a chartered Yak-42 jet killed 43 people and was one of the sports world's worst aviation disasters. Of the 45 people on board, 36 were Lokomotiv players, coaches and team officials, including many European and former NHL players. Among the victims were Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon, an 18-year veteran of the NHL and former Vancouver Canuck star Pavol Demitra.

The crash shocked Russia and the entire hockey community but emotions were especially raw in Yaroslavl, where the team's consistently strong performance in the Kontinental Hockey League was a source of great pride. The team had been heading to Minsk, Belarus, to play its opening game of the KLH season.

"It's hard for me to talk because I loved the team so much," said Slovakian national hockey team coach Vladimir Vujtek, who had previously coached Lokomotiv.

li-nu-crash-300-ap

Mourners arrive at the memorial service in Yaroslavl, Russia, on Saturday for victims of the plane crash that killed 43 people, including 36 players, coaches and staff of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team. (Misha Japaridze/Associated Press)

"For the first time in my life, I had trouble entering an ice arena," KHL chair and former NHL star Vyacheslav Fetisov said at the ceremony. "It's an inexplicable tragedy."

100,000 attend ceremony

The sombre-faced Putin walked slowly across the arena, placing flowers at each of the coffins, and several KHL ice hockey squads travelled en masse to Yaroslavl to attend the ceremony.

Local police estimated the crowd at 100,000 people.

President Dmitry Medvedev visited the crash site a day after the disaster, but didn't attend Saturday's ceremony. Many fans had criticized Medvedev for using the arena for an international conference this week, a move that forced the team to fly out of town in the first place.

Fetisov on Saturday renewed a KHL pledge to help rebuild the Lokomotiv team. KHL chief Alexander Medvedev said earlier this week that each team in the league should volunteer up to three players to build a new Lokomotiv squad. He said some 35 players had already volunteered to join the new team.

The KHL is an international club league that pits together 24 teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia.

Cause of crash not known

Russian crash investigators deciphering the plane's flight data recorders say all the plane's three engines were operating up until the moment it crashed into the Volga River bank shortly after takeoff.

The experts have come to no conclusions yet about the cause of the crash.

Authorities checked fuel supplies at the Tunoshna airport amid suspicions that low quality fuel could be to blame, but Russia's top aviation authority said Saturday the data recorders gave no indication that bad fuel was the cause.

Two men who survived the crash -- player Alexander Galimov and crew member Alexander Sizov -- remained in critical condition Saturday, both in medicated comas after being transferred to Moscow for treatment. Hospital officials said Galimov had burns over 90 per cent of his body.