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Some random thoughts on Hockey's darkest day ever ...

September 8, 2011, 7:59 AM ET [ Comments]
Scoop Cooper
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The last year has been a horrendous one -- a true "annus horribilis" -- for our game with the large and growing list of good hockey people who have left us far, far too early. Last week it was Wade Belak at just 35, and three weeks ago it was Rick Rypien at 27, both apparently by their own hands. In May, 28 year old Derek Boogaard was taken suddenly by a lethal mixture of alcohol and oxycondone. (I have also personally lost five good "hockey people" friends since last October who were aged between 37 and 59 -- all younger then I am.)

September 7, 2011, however, will for all time no doubt be sadly remembered as the darkest day of all in hockey with the tragic loss of an entire team ... Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (Локомотив Яросла́вль) of the KHL ... in a horrendous airplane takeoff accident of a YaK-42D. After barely getting off the ground on a flight to Minsk where the team was to open the 2011-12 KHL season, the almost two decades old medium range tri-jet apparently caught fire, stalled just above the treetops, and crashed into the Volga River about a mile from the lightly used Yaroslavl-Tunoshna Airport (which services only two daily scheduled weekday commuter flights to Moscow) instantly killing 43 of 45 on board the hockey team's charter flight. (The flight engineer and player Alexander Galimov were hospitalized in critical condition with extensive burn injuries. Galimov succumbed from his burns five days later on September 12.)

Among those lost were a number of former NHL players including Pavol Demitra, Karel Rachůnek, Ruslan Salei, Josef Vašíček, Karlis Skrastins, and Alexander Vasyunov. The club's two assistant coaches, Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev, were also former NHL'ers, but the name that stands out the most to me is that of the club's new head coach, 52-year old Brad McCrimmon, one of the steadiest blueliners in NHL history. Although nicknamed both "Beast" and "Sarge" during his long playing career, he was nonetheless a quiet and gentle giant of a man -- and a blueliner of immense stamina and skill who ranks eighth all-time in NHL history at +444.


Brad McCrimmon (highlighted) and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

After a glorious junior career with the WHL Brandon Wheat Kings (a team now owned and managed by his family) from 1976 to 1979, he was a first round pick (15th overall) by the Boston Bruins in 1979. Among those he was regularly paired with during his 18 season NHL career that followed are current or future Hall of Famers Nicklas Lidström, Chris Pronger, Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque, and most especially Mark Howe during his five years with the Philadelphia Flyers from 1982 to 1987. After retiring as a player in 1997, McCrimmon switched to coaching, working his way up the ladder as an assistant with the New York Islanders, Atlanta Thrashers, Calgary Flames, and for the last three years with the Detroit Red Wings. (He also spent two seasons as head coach of the WHL Saskatoon Blades from 1998 to 2000, and coached in Germany during the NHL lockout in 2004-05.) His ambition, however, was always to become a head coach in the NHL, and tragically that would cost him his life.

"Brad was a man of his word and someone who I confided in quite often," Mark Howe wrote to me in an email yesterday a few hours after word came of his loss. "After leaving the Wings last Spring, Brad thought getting some head coaching experience would help him land a head job in the NHL in a couple of years. He had a couple of interviews, but felt the situation wasn't right for him. Brad was offered a couple of assistant coaching jobs, but he wanted a head job. He just got tired of doing things in a way that he didn't agree with. What a sad day for hockey."

And so last May Brad McCrimmon accepted the head coaching job with the KHL club of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, one of the oldest (established in 1949) and best hockey organizations Russia. That club was to open its season in Minsk on Thursday, September 8. And when the puck was to be dropped, 52 year old Brad McCrimmon was to be standing behind the bench of a professional hockey team as a head coach for the first time in his 35+ year junior and pro career in the game.

But that was not to be. And what makes this terrible loss even more devastatingly tragic is that it appears to have been 100% preventable.

Unlike in the NHL where teams either operate their own planes or charter from major air carriers or charter companies, such is not the case in the KHL. The company that operated the Yak-42D (Registration: RA-42434, c/n 17-05) that McCrimmon and his team were on was a Moscow based charter air carrier called "YAK-Service" (Як Сервис) which flew as "Proton Airlines". Designed in the 1970's by the A.S. Yakovlev Design Bureau JSC with an intended life construction run for the 42/42D series of up to 2,000, however only 193 of this model were ever built of which just 86 are still flying. (The 57 in service in Russia are currently grounded pending investigation of this accident.)


Proton Airlines YaK-42D RA-42434

The carrier, which only had a fleet of five of these second or more hand YaK-40 and YaK-42 aircraft, had also been twice banned (in 2009 and again in 2010) from operating within the European Union because of "major safety deficiencies affecting flight operations" and not having "serviceable ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) mandatory equipment necessary for international commercial air transport." Flying a team on such a carrier would never be allowed to happen in the NHL.

The accident took place at about 3:50 PM R2T when the YaK-42D took off in clear weather for the 540 mile flight to Minsk but was then unable to climb out after rotation. Witnesses report that the plane stalled at an altitude of about 50 feet falling off to the left and striking a nearby navigational aid tower structure, broke in two, and fell into the Volga. The flight had lasted less than a minute.

Although the accident investigation has barely begun, it's already looking as if this really was a maintenance related "accident waiting to happen", and if so was 100% preventable making it all the more tragic. Based on this and the dismal EMS response to the fatal 2008 Alexei Cherepanov incident, players and other hockey people should really think long and hard about playing or coaching in the KHL until that league insists on a world class support structure.

And to Brad McCrimmon, my friend of more than a quarter century, you will be very very much missed.

RIP Beast.
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