Sunday, 7 September 2014

Rebuilding from the wreckage. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl's resurgence

September 7th 2011. 

It is a date that will strike a nerve in hockey fans from now until the end of time. When Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s chartered Yak-42 careered into the ground yards from the runway, time seemingly stood still. I can still remember exactly when I was when I first saw the news appear on my Twitter feed, and then I spent most of the day glued to Russia Today to get any updates in the vain hope that at least one Lokomotiv player would survive from the crash. The heart-breaking tale of Aleksandr Galimov, who was rescued from the wreckage only to succumb five days later to his injuries is one that will live forever in my memory.

Vitaly Anikeyenko, Yuri Bakhvlov, Mikhail Balandin, Aleksandr Belyaev, Gennady Churilov, Pavol Demitra, Robert Dietrich, Alexander Galimov, Marat Kalimulin, Alexander Kalyanin, Alexander Karpovtsev, Andrei Kiryukhin, Nikita Klyukin, Igor Korolev, Nikolai Krivonosov, Yevgeni Kunnov, Vyacheslav Kuznetsov, Stefan Liv, Jan Marek, Brad McCrimon, Sergei Ostapchuk, Vladimir Piskunov, Karel Rachůnek, Ruslan Salei, Maxim Shuvalov, Kārlis Skrastiņš, Pavel Snurnitsyn, Daniil Sobchenko, Yevgeni Sidorov, Ivan Tkachenko, Pavel Trakhanov, Yuri Urychev, Josef Vašíček, Alexander Vasyunov, Alexander Vyukhin, Artem Yarchuk, Andrei Zimin.

37 men. 37 families torn apart by tragedy. As fans, we remember the great pieces of play that these players were responsible for, but we are simply unable to quantify just how much of a tragedy this crash was for the families. For me, the loss of Pavol Demitra was the one that hurt the most, as just a few months earlier, I remember ‘Palo’ in tears on the ice of the Slovnaft Arena in Bratislava after he announced his retirement from the Slovak national team. Demitra, who had been Slovakia’s talisman at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, had sent the whole country into raptures after scoring Slovakia’s famous shootout winner over Russia, one of the country’s biggest hockey achievements since winning World Championship gold in 2002. On the first anniversary of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash, I happened to be in Trenčín in Slovakia, where I paid my respects in front of the now renamed Zimný štadión Pavla Demitru. I watched Dukla play Žilina in a pre-season game and in the 38th minute, the whistle blew, Dukla fans threw roses onto the ice and both teams and both sets of fans observed a two minute’s silence.

However, the impact that these players had off the ice was arguably greater than their impact off of the ice. Stories emerged such as the tale of former Russian national team forward Ivan Tkachenko, a Yaroslavl native and Lokomotiv’s prospective captain for their 2011/12 KHL campaign. Tkachenko had donated one million rubles anonymously to a cancer victim in the nearby city of Voronezh. His gratitude was only made public following the Lokomotiv plane crash due his wish to remain anonymous.

Thousands paid their respects in Prague as the news reached
the Czech Republic of the deaths of Karel Rachůnek
Josef Vašíček and Jan Marek
The start of the KHL season was delayed for a week, and a touching ceremony at the Minsk Arena, where Lokomotiv were meant to be flying to start their season, was put on by Dinamo Minsk with portraits of the dead displayed on the ice. All across Europe, memorials were constructed to honour each country’s lost heroes. In Prague, Old Town Square (Staromětské Náměstí) was full of candles as fans paid their respects to the three Czech players who were involved in the tragedy.

Talk quickly turned to simply where Lokomotiv could go from here. Would the franchise fold? Could they rebuild a team for the current KHL season? All the teams in the KHL discussed the possibility of loaning players to the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl franchise to help the club back on it’s feet.

However, it was quickly announced that Lokomotiv Yaroslavl would be given special dispensation to play in the VHL, the second tier of Russian hockey. The team would comprise largely of players from Lokomotiv’s youth team which played in the MHL. The Western Conference standings were reworked so that places in the playoffs would be determined by points percentage, to account for the fewer games that Lokomotiv would play in the VHL. The club made its VHL debut on the 12th December, defeating Neftyanik Almetevsk 5-1 on home ice. Dmitri Maltsev scored the first goal for the ‘reborn’ Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

In their only VHL campaign, Lokomotiv would finish third in the Western Conference, defeating HK VMF in the first round of playoffs. Dizel Penza were too tough an opponent in the Western semi-finals, and Lokomotiv bowed out of the VHL with their heads held high. It was a fantastic project to help rebuild hockey in Yaroslavl, using the youngsters who formed the basis of Lokomotiv’s youth program. A number of players used the experience to help their junior development, and it is fitting that the likes of Kirill Kapustin, Ilya Lyubushkin and Yegor Yakovlev currently feature on Lokomotiv’s KHL roster after helping the team rebuild. Yakovlev made his World Championship debut for Russia in 2014, at the tender age of 22.

The summer of 2012 saw Lokomotiv truly rebuild as they put together a strong looking roster. Vitali Kolesnik and Curtis Sanford signed as the team’s two goaltenders, while the likes of Staffan Kronwall, Sami Lepisto, Vitali Vishnevski, Alexei Kalyuzhny, Oleg Petrov and Niklas Hagman all signed for head coach Tom Rowe. The former Carolina Hurricanes coach would get just over a year in charge before being fired. In their two seasons since returning to the KHL, Lokomotiv made the playoffs. In 2012/13 they lost to Severstal Cherepovets, whilst the club made it as far as the Western Conference finals last season, before losing in five games to the now defunct HC Lev Praha.

Former Team Switzerland coach Sean Simpson is now at the helm in Yaroslavl, and the club enters the 2014/15 with a sense of optimism. Sanford and Kolesnik remain between the pipes whilst hometown hero Ilya Gorokhov enters his second season with the C on his jersey after an incredibly successful spell with Dynamo Moscow. This summer has seen both Martin Thornberg and Jiří Novotný join from Lev Praha, and Sergei Plotnikov remains at the club, as the 24 year old is fast becoming one of the premier Russian forwards in the KHL.

Lokomotiv shocked SKA St. Petersburg in the 2013/14 playoffs
Photo: Yaroslav and Julia Neelova,
The way that Lokomotiv Yaroslavl has been able to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of disaster is testament to the strength of the people in the city of Yaroslavl and is endemic of how proud they are of their franchise. The team was consistently able to sell out their VHL games, and now the Arena 2000 is packed every game. The Lokomotiv jerseys are still emblazoned with a black ribbon, with the date 07.09.11, as a testament to how despite the crash, the current crop of players still represent that same Lokomotiv Yaroslavl that those fallen heroes did.

Bouncebackability is a word commonly used in football terminology, but never has it been so apt than in the case of Lokomotiv.

Локомотив. Вечная памиать. Мы помним. Мы скорбим.

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