The hockey world was left stunned Thursday after a plane carrying a major Russian ice hockey team to their season-opening match crashed shortly after take-off, killing at least 43 people.
The Yak-42 was flying members of three-time Russian champions Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to a game in the Belarussian capital Minsk on Wednesday when it went down some 300 kilometres (185 miles) northeast of Moscow.
The chief local surgeon told Channel One television that one Russian player, identified as Alexander Galimov, and a crew member had survived but were in grave condition.
“This is the darkest day in the history of our sport,” International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel said. “This is not only a Russian tragedy. This is a terrible tragedy for the global ice hockey community.”
Alex Ovechkin, a Russian superstar for the NHL Washington Capitals who once played for Lokomotiv’s Kontinental Hockey League rival Moscow Dynamo, posted on his Twitter account “I’m in shock!!!! R.I.P” and was upset after practice.
“A whole national tragedy,” Ovechkin told the Washington Post. “It’s kind of a scary moment.”
The crash occurred near the site of an annual political conference to be attended Thursday by President Dmitry Medvedev ahead of key parliamentary and presidential elections.
Among those killed were the team’s Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon — a former assistant with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings — goalie and former Swedish Olympic champion Stefan Liv as well as Slovak ex-NHL standout Pavol Demitra.
Three Czech stars — Jan Marek, Josef Vasicek and Karel Rachunek — were also among the dead.
Thirty-one-year-old center Marek and 32-year-old defenceman Rachunek were world champions from 2010, while the 31-year-old center Vasicek had a world title from 2005.
Latvian hockey star Karlis Skrastins, 37, who had signed with the Russian team after playing with several in the NHL, was also among the dead. German officials named a victim from Germany, Robert Dietrich.
Thousands of the team’s fans flocked to the ice arena in the evening for a candlelight vigil, placing heaps of roses and fan scarves near its walls.
By grim coincidence, Medvedev — who is also expected to tour the scene of the wreckage — was set to speak from Lokomotiv’s ice hockey arena which has been turned into the forum venue for the two-day event.
The sorrow spread across the global ice hockey community.
“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,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
“We have no team anymore,” Lokomotiv spokesman Vladimir Malkov told The New York Times.
“I knew half the team. I didn’t believe it at first… then I felt sick,” New York Ranger and former Lokomotiv hometown hero Artem Anisimov told Newsday.
The local emergencies ministry said the plane began listing to the left only seconds into the afternoon flight and crashed about 500 metres (yards) away from the Tunoshna airport.
Initial reports said the jet may have hit a local radar antenna. The twisted wreckage of the aircraft lay buried in the Tunoshna River as divers searched for signs of life.
“We saw a plane and then heard a boom. There was a huge flame that quickly turned to smoke,” said 16-year-old witness Andrei Gorshkov.
“It was so scary, we did not know what to do,” he told AFP.
“The plane failed to reach the required altitude, hit an obstacle and started falling to pieces. It burst into flames on impact,” a local police official was quoted as saying.
The disaster comes on the heels of a summer full of deadly transport mishaps.
Two accidents involving Tu-134 and An-24 jets killed a total of 54 people and prompted Medvedev to call for most of the aircraft to be retired by January 1.
That move was followed by a series of smaller air accidents as well as a Volga River boat sinking that killed 122 people out on a pleasure cruise.
Several subsequent space failures have prompted Russia to ground its most famous rockets in a move that now threatens to leave the International Space Station abandoned for the first time in 10 years.
This dire record has tarnished Medvedev’s vision of the modern Russia he promotes in messages ahead of presidential elections next year in which Vladimir Putin — his more nationalist mentor and prime minister — could also run.
The popular hockey side was founded in 1959 and last won the country’s title in the 2002-2003 season. It also enjoys a national following and recently attracted several younger stars from the NHL.
One of those killed included 23-year-old former New Jersey Devils player Alexander Vasyunov — a Yaroslavl native with many local friends.
“We have been friends since childhood,” 24-year-old Dmitry Luchnikov told AFP, asking: “Why is this happening? Why haven’t we got reliable aircraft?”
Russian authorities announced they have opened an investigation into the crash.