KHL’s Yaroslavl Lokomotiv Healing Through Hockey Months After Tragic Plane Crash

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KHL’s Yaroslavl Lokomotiv healing through hockey months after tragic plane crash

It was Sept. 3, and although Daniil Apalkov had made a smashing debut in with the Russian junior team at the Four Nations Tournament, the 19-year-old was destined for another year of riding the buses in the Russian junior league and, if he was lucky, perhaps a few minutes of ice time here and there with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League.

That all changed four days later when an aging airliner carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl club — including two of Apalkov’s national junior teammates, Pavel Snurnitsyn and Maxim Shuvalov — crashed outside Yaroslavl. No one survived.

When the funerals for the victims and the initial grieving had ended, KHL president Alexander Medvedev and his executives started scratching their heads for ideas on rebuilding the team, which had finished third the season before.

Medvedev’s first thought was to put a new team on the ice immediately. He suggested each KHL team volunteer up to three players, creating a pool of talent from which Lokomotiv could choose. He said players’ salaries could be underwritten by the teams from which they had been transferred to Lokomotiv for one season. Alexei Yashin, a free agent who had been with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders before joining the KHL, volunteered to play in Yaroslavl.

But Lokomotiv club officials were against an early return to Russia’s top league.

“Yaroslavl was in tragedy,” said Andrei Tutarikov, an employee of the Region of Yaroslavl who arrived at the crash scene just 20 minutes after the plane went down. “And to play in Arena 2000 and dress in the same locker rooms would have been very difficult. Nobody entered those locker rooms from the day of the crash until the end of October.”

Lokomotiv president Yuri Yakovlev recommended the club maintain its team in the Russian junior league while having its top team join the VHL, one level below the KHL, by December. Some of the best players from the junior club were promoted the major-league team. The club was then allowed to sign free agents and select young players born between 1989 and 1994 who already had contracts with clubs in the KHL or VHL. Those clubs were allowed to protect two players. The final decision on moving to Yaroslavl was then left to the individual player selected. If he was willing to make the move, his club lost him without compensation.

Apalkov, who celebrated his 20th birthday on New Year’s Day in Calgary while at the world junior championship, was one of the first players to accept the offer to join the new Lokomotiv team. Emil Galimov, the last cut of the Russian junior team, also joined Lokomotiv and is now the team’s top scorer.

“I have already adjusted to life in Yaroslavl,” Apalkov told the newspaper Sovietsky Sport recently. “I like both the city and the fans. And the main thing is that with this team I am getting playing time and the possibility to grow.”

The city and the team have not put the tragedy behind them. Insurance payments to heirs of the deceased players — most are expected to receive about $235,000 — have been slow. Not a single player had designated a beneficiary in any insurance agreement. Some players had more than one ex-wife. And legal heirs, by Russian law, are not defined until six months from the date of death.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has promised government aid, and a special fund for the families has already raised about $3.3-million. An outdoor game — the Russian Classic on Feb. 17, featuring Lokomotiv and host Sokol Krasnoyarsk — will raise more money for the families.

And, yes, there is hockey again.

An overflow crowd of 9,100 attended the team’s first VHL game in December and fans were rewarded with a 5-1 Lokomotiv win over Neftyanik Almyetyevsk. Lokomotiv is playing a partial schedule in the VHL — 22 games, one against each of the other teams —and its playoff chances will be determined by the percentage of points earned. Yaroslavl had 27 points from its first 14 games (eight wins, three regulation losses, two losses in shootouts and one in overtime) or 64.3% of the available points, third in the Western Conference.

The coach, Petr Vorobiev, led Yaroslavl to its first Russian league title in 1997. The organization includes four Yaroslavl-born players — Rushan Rafikov, Nikita Cherepanov, Vladislav Gavrikov and Evgeny Zakurin — who were part of Russia’s gold-medal at the world under-17 championship in Windsor, Ont. They have said they plan to stay at home and be part of the rebuilding of the club, which will rejoin the KHL next year.

“In the end, I think, the optimum decision was made,” Tutarikov said. “Young players, I believe future hockey stars, are getting good experience in the VHL. It is a good school for them. It is more important, than one season in the KHL with a strange group of players. In three or four years, I think this young group of players will be the leaders in the KHL.”

Denis Gibbons

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