Imagine closing your eyes for a minute, only to open them and discover your favourite sports team had, in a word, gone. Arsenal; Harlequins; Chicago Bulls; New York Yankees; Green Bay Packers: it doesn’t matter what sport or what team, just hold the thought. Imagine wanting to put life’s problems aside for a few hours by catching a game, only to find that you couldn’t. Not because you couldn’t afford a ticket, get to the nearest boozer on time or because that usually reliable Saudi streaming site was down; no. Imagine not being able to indulge in your favourite pastime because your team didn’t actually exist anymore.
Unimaginable? Incomprehensible? Downright fucked up? It’s a fan’s worst nightmare, one that, let’s face it, is unlikely to ever affect most of us. That, however, is the tragic reality facing supporters of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, one of Russia’s most successful ice hockey clubs. Shortly after its late afternoon takeoff yesterday, the Yak-42 jet carrying team players and personnel to Minsk for Lokomomotiv’s season opener, burst into flames.
Forty-three dead (seven crew and 36 team members), two survivors: September 7, 2011 will forever be remembered as hockey’s darkest day. Early reports suggests that the aircraft broke into two after hitting a radio mast before plummeting into the Volga river. You can’t begin to fathom the pain felt by the victims’ family and friends, but that one of the players’, Sergei Ostapchuk, mums died from a heart attack on hearing the news of her son’s death should, sadly, come as little surprise.
Among the fatalities were former NHLers Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek, Jan Marek, Alexander Vasyunov, defenseman Karlis Skrastins, Stefan Liv and coach Brad McCrimmon. Whilst the likes of Demitra, Salei and Skrastins had enjoyed careers in the big time, others’ – including 18-year old Maxim Shuvalov and 21-year-old Nikita Klyukin – had only just begun. Following the deaths of New York Rangers’ Derek Boogaard, Winnipeg Jets’ Rick Rypien and Nashville Predators’ Wade Belak – all of whom passed away within the past four months - this latest tragedy adds to what can only be described as a catastrophic summer for hockey.
So, to all you Weekend Warriors out there that live for 90th minute game-winners, crunching dump tackles, flukey 20-foot par saves and epic boundaries, just remember to give it your all and enjoy it
What makes the whole situation even more of a bitter pill to swallow is the fact that the Yak-42 carries a terrible safety record. It was due to be phased out next year. There have already been eight fatal crashes in Russia this year; 44 deaths coming two months ago after an Antonov-24 caught fire midair before crashing in Western Siberia. Yak-Service, the airline responsible for the plane’s operation, was ranked last by the European Air Safety Commission and suspended for three months in 2009 by Russian authorities because of ‘major safety deficiencies.’ In total, eight Yak-42s have crashed over the years, claiming 570 lives. It’s all too easy to point the finger, but it’s hard not to feel that it all the above could have easily been avoided.
Comparisons to Manchester’s Munich air disaster are inevitable and, as an avid hockey fan and player, only now can I begin to relate to the pain felt by United fans. There is a palpable feeling of emptiness and despair within the hockey community at present, one that I wouldn’t want any other sports fan to go through. Surreal and depressing are the two words that immediately spring to mind.
Loss of life and waste of talent is tough enough to deal with in the short term, but the prospect of having to put the mourning process to one side and think about rebuilding a team with 62 years’ worth of history must be tougher still for those involved. Russian Ice Hockey Federation president, Vladislav Tretyak, stated: ‘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.’ Contrast that to the painfully bleak quote from one of the team’s spokesman, however, only then do you get an idea of the struggle facing Lokomotiv: ‘Right now there is no hope. The team is gone.’
The team is gone, along with that one last chance for those who lost their lives to pick up a stick, lace a pair of skates and play the game they loved. So, to all you Weekend Warriors out there that live for 90th minute game-winners, crunching dump tackles, flukey 20-foot par saves and epic boundaries, just remember to give it your all and enjoy it, no matter how shite you are. Just a game? Bollocks to that. Sport is what we live for – on the playing field, in the stadium, down the pub or at home - so cherish every joyous or heartbreaking minute of it while you can. Because, as morbid a way to end an article as this might well be, you never know what’s ‘round the corner.
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