Plane crash kills KHL team in hockey's 'darkest day'

A Russian jet carrying the Kontinental Hockey League's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team crashed Wednesday, killing most of the team, including Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon and former Vancouver Canuck star Pavol Demitra

Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon, several ex-NHLers among 43 dead, league says

A Russian jet carrying the Kontinental Hockey League's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team crashed Wednesday, killing most of the team, including Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon and former Vancouver Canuck star Pavol Demitra.

Russia's emergency situations ministry said the 120-seat Yak-42 plane carrying the team crashed Wednesday after leaving an airport near the city of Yaroslavl, on the Volga River northeast of Moscow. 

The flight reportedly took off in clear, sunny weather. Witnesses reported the jet listing to one side before crashing shortly after takeoff, freelance reporter Jessica Golloher told CBC News from Moscow.

Air crashes involving sports teams

In 1959, eight members of Manchester United died in this crash in Munich. (AP)

The sports world has seen a number of notable plane disasters, including accidents that killed members of the CFL, Manchester United and the U.S. amateur boxing team. 

The KHL said in a statement that two people, player Alexander Galimov and one of the crew members, survived and are critically injured.

"This is the darkest day in the history of our sport," said Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation.

Demitra, 36, was entering his second season with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv following a 61-point campaign in 2010-11. Demitra broke into the NHL in 1993 with Ottawa, which drafted him in the ninth round that year. He also played with St. Louis, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Vancouver, his final stop in 2009-10.  

A native of Slovakia, Demitra is said to have had an infectious energy with the ability to bring people together. He finished his NHL career with 304 goals and 768 points in 847 regular-season games. He leaves behind a wife and two young children.

Pavol Demitra finished his NHL career in 2010 with 304 goals and 768 points in 847 regular-season games. ((Dave Sandford/Getty Images) )

Demitra's agent Matt Keator said he found out about his death through the player's Russian agency.

"I'm just kind of stunned, the whole hockey world is stunned," Keator told CBC News. "It's senseless and awful. "

"I've been trying to reach his family, but obviously it's a tough time for them right now."

The Canucks released a statement on Wednesday afternoon confirming Demitra's death, praising him for his passion for his young family and the game of hockey.

"Pavol was a valued teammate and member of our organization and will be sorely missed," the team said. "We send our deepest condolences to the entire Demitra family and their friends so affected by this tragedy."

In the western Slovak city of Trencin, where Demitra started his career and where he played during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, hundreds of fans gathered outside an arena Wednesday night to light candles in his memory.

McCrimmon, a former NHL veteran who was an assistant coach last season with the Detroit Red Wings, joined the team as head coach in May.

The emergency ministry said Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek, Swedish goalie and Olympic gold medallist Stefan Liv, Latvian defenceman and former Carolina Hurricane Karlis Skrastins and Belarus national team captain and former Anaheim Ducks defender Ruslan Salei were among those killed.

Brad McCrimmon, an 18-year NHL veteran and former assistant coach for several NHL teams, joined Locomotive Yaroslavl as head coach in May. ((Andy Marlin/Getty Images))

Russian media reports said former Toronto Maple Leaf players Igor Korolev and Alexander Karpovtsev, McCrimmon's two assistant coaches, were also killed.

Alexander Degyatryov, chief doctor at Yaroslavl's Solovyov Hospital, described the state of health of the two survivors as "very grave."

"But there is still some hope," he said.

Originally from Saskatchewan, McCrimmon was a former assistant coach for the New York Islanders, Calgary Flames, Atlanta Thrashers and Detroit Red Wings. His NHL career spanned 18 seasons and 1,222 games with five teams, including the Flames, the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit.

The 2011 official photograph of the KHL's Locomotiv Yaroslavl. ((Locomotiv Yaroslavl))

Calgary Flames president and CEO Ken King called the death of McCrimmon unimaginable. He said McCrimmon was a great friend and associate who was "invincible, we all thought."

Shortly after news of the crash emerged, Riley Armstrong, who was listed on the team's roster, posted a Twitter message saying he was not on board the flight because he is attending a team training camp in St. John's.

"I'm safe but thanks for the kind words," he said on Twitter. "Pray and think of the players and their families on that flight."

'A catastrophic loss to the hockey world': Bettman

People gather at a memorial in Prague, Czech Republic, to pay tribute to the players (including three Czechs) who died when a Russian jet carrying the KHL's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team crashed Wednesday. (Michal Dolezal, CTK/Associated Press)

News of the crash quickly spread among the NHL community, with several players expressing shock and sadness as the league is already struggling to come to terms with the recent deaths of players Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak.

"This has been an awful summer for hockey," Columbus Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger said via Twitter.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman expressed his condolences to the families and loved ones of all those who died.

"Though it occurred thousands of miles away from our home arenas, this 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," Bettman said in a statement.

The team was heading to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where it was to play Thursday against Dinamo Minsk in the opening game of the season of the Kontinental Hockey League.

The KHL is a league of teams in several ex-Soviet nations that has rivalled the NHL in recent years in terms of salary and attracting high-calibre talent to Russia.

KHL fans shout slogans as they march through Yaroslavl, Russia, honouring the victims of Wednesday's plane crash. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

A cup match between hockey teams Salavat Yulaev and Atlant in the central Russian city of Ufa was called off midway after news of the crash was announced by KHL head Alexander Medvedev. Russian television broadcast images of an empty arena in Ufa as grief-stricken fans abandoned the stadium.

"We will do our best to ensure that hockey in Yaroslavl does not die, and that it continues to live for the people that were on that plane," said Russian Ice Hockey Federation President Vladislav Tretiak.

More than 2,000 mourning fans wearing jerseys and scarves and waving team flags gathered in the evening outside Lokomotiv's arena in Yaroslavl to mourn. Most carried flowers. Riot police stood guard as fans sang to honour the dead athletes.

Observers have long raised concerns about Russia's aviation safety standards since the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

President Dmitry Medvedev has announced plans to take aging Soviet-built planes out of service starting next year. The short- and medium-range Yak-42 has been in service since 1980 and about 100 are still working for Russian carriers.

Russia was hoping to showcase Yaroslavl as a modern and vibrant city this week at an international forum attended by heads of state, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, so the crash came as a particularly bitter blow. The forum is being held in the hockey stadium.

With files from The Associated Press