A growing professional hockey league based in Russia is a point of pride for a country that loves the sport, able to attract stars from the prestigious North American league who find competitive salaries and a less-demanding schedule.
On Wednesday, a premier Kontinental Hockey League team fell victim to one of Russia’s chronic weaknesses: the quality and safety of air travel.
A Yakovlev-42 charter jet carrying the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team to its season opener crashed into the Volga River shortly after takeoff, killing 43 people: 35 players, coaches and team officials, plus eight crew members. One player and a flight engineer survived, and were taken to a hospital with serious injuries, said the region’s governor, Sergei Vakhrukov.
Among the dead was former NHL player Brad McCrimmon, a 52-year-old Canadian, who signed a contract in May to coach Lokomotiv after working as an assistant coach for the Detroit Red Wings. The game scheduled for Thursday in Minsk, Belarus, was to be his first as head coach.
Ten other foreigners were among the dead, including forward Pavol Demitra of Slovakia, who played for the Los Angeles Kings and other NHL teams, and defender Ruslan Salei, who played professionally the Anaheim Ducks, among other teams.
Video from the crash site showed burning wreckage in shallow water close to the Volga’s banks. Rescue workers in boats were cautiously approaching the plane, which was still burning and smoking heavily.
By nightfall, 35 bodies had been found, Emergency Ministry officials said.
The 24-team Kontinental Hockey League is organized and mainly sponsored by Russia, but some of the teams are in former Soviet republics.
The league was founded four years ago and marketed as an alternative to the NHL as it tried to reverse the exodus of Russian stars to North America. As the league grew in respectability, it used the deep pockets of billionaire owners and state companies to woo European stars as well.
Wednesday’s crash may damage the league’s appeal. Vsevolod Kukushkin, a league advisor, said it was “a horrible blow and a colossal loss for the league.”
Kukushkin said teams needed to reconsider the quality of the planes they charter and the training of the pilots. The president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, Vladislav Tretyak, said it would no longer use Yakovlev-42 jets.
The Russian Investigation Committee, the main investigative body in the country, was looking into both mechanical malfunction and human error as possible causes of the crash, officials said.
The most recent fatal air accident in Russia occurred in June, when a Tupolev-134 crashed on a highway while trying to land in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk. Forty-four people were killed.
Deputy Transportation Minister Valery Okulov said that as of Jan. 1, older passenger planes not equipped with automatic systems warning of impending collisions with the ground or other aircraft will be taken out of service.
At least one expert said that move is insufficient.
“You can take as many Russian planes out of circulation as you please, but that will not solve the critical problems increasingly afflicting our passenger fleet,” said Alexander Akimenkov, a former test pilot and senior member of the Ukraine-based International Academy for Human Problems in Aviation and Cosmonautics. “You can’t replace all these planes with Boeings and other foreign makes, no matter how good they may be, because we just don’t have a proper infrastructure for them.”
The aircraft that crashed Wednesday was built in the early 1990s and could have been in use for years to come if properly maintained, he said. But in the post-Soviet period, the quality of production and maintenance decayed.
“The pilots are not properly trained to manage simple Russian planes equipped with a minimum of electronic equipment on board in crisis situations.
“I hate to say it,” he said, “but the situation is so bad that planes will continue to crash.”