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NHL feels the loss from Russian plane crash

By Tom Cohen, CNN
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A plane carrying Russian hockey players crashed Wednesday as it took off from the country's Yaroslavl airport.
  • Several former NHL players are believed to have been killed in the crash
  • Brad McCrimmon, a Canadian coach and former NHLer, was on the plane
  • The crash is a "catastrophic loss for the hockey world," the NHL commissioner says

(CNN) -- In the increasingly globalized world of professional hockey, a plane crash Wednesday in Russia caused loss and grief halfway around the world in North America.

All members of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team of the Kontinental Hockey League -- including a Canadian coach and some players with extensive National Hockey League experience -- were believed to have been aboard the plane that went down after takeoff from Yaroslavl, about 250 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of Moscow.

Authorities say 43 of the 45 people aboard were killed. There were two survivors: one Russian hockey player and a flight attendant.

"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," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "Our deepest condolences go to the families and loved ones of all who perished."

The news came as the NHL was reeling from the recent deaths of three current or former enforcers, players whose main contribution is to intimidate and fight. The oldest of the three, 35-year-old Wade Belak, was found dead last week in a Toronto apartment.

Among those believed to have been on the plane that crashed Wednesday were Brad McCrimmon, a 52-year-old Canadian coach who played in the NHL for 18 years with Boston, Philadelphia, Calgary, Detroit, Hartford and Phoenix.

According to the website of the Calgary Flames, former teammates were struggling to come to grips with the loss of McCrimmon, who was on the team when it won its Stanley Cup championship in 1989.

"These things hit you like a ton of bricks," former Flames captain Jim Peplinski told the website, referring to McCrimmon by his nickname as a player. "You do your best to deal with them and move on. Right now, we're talking with our different teammates and trying to come to grips with the reality that 'The Beast' is no longer on this Earth."

Other players on the Lokomotiv roster included former NHL All-Star forward Pavol Demitra, a Slovakian who played 16 seasons for Ottawa, St. Louis, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Vancouver; longtime NHL defenseman Karel Rachunek of the Czech Republic, who played for Ottawa, the New York Rangers and New Jersey; Russian defenseman Ruslan Salei, who played 14 years in the NHL for Anaheim, Florida, Colorado and Detroit; Latvian defenseman Karlis Skrastins, who played 12 NHL seasons for Nashville, Colorado, Florida and Dallas; and Josef Vasicek from the Czech Republic, who played seven seasons for Carolina and the New York Islanders.

Demitra scored more than 300 goals in his NHL career and won the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship in 2000. He was the leading scorer at the 2010 Winter Olympics, narrowly missing an open net that would have tied the score in the final seconds of Slovakia's semifinal match against favored Canada, which went on to win the gold medal.

Professional hockey has become much more international in the past three decades, with European and Russian players appearing on every NHL roster. The KHL is a major Russia-based professional league that has attracted some NHL players, particularly those of Russian or east European descent, with large salaries and top-flight competition.

Though considered a step below the NHL, the KHL also has lured younger players from Europe and Canada who are unable to make NHL rosters right away. That kind of globalization has integrated the hockey world, players say.

"Hockey's such a small community," noted Jamie McLennan, a former NHL goalie who once played in Russia, on Canada's TSN Radio 1050. "It's that six degrees of separation. You can't play with somebody who doesn't know somebody."

While noting that no official fatality list has been announced, McLennan said: "The names that are being thrown around, you know of them, you played against them, you respect them, you know somebody who was close to them."

Sergei Gonchar, a veteran Russian defenseman for the Ottawa Senators, said he knew some of the players on Lokomotiv "and it's very hard to hear," while longtime Senators forward and captain Daniel Alfredsson of Sweden said the tragedy of the crash was the loss of "people you know and people you've been around."

McLennan remembered some flights he described as "hairy" while playing overseas, and he said different countries have different operating standards for airlines.

"What we're used to may not translate into what other people deem safe," he said, adding that "you expect a certain criteria because that's what you've grown up with."

In Russia, he told TSN Radio 1050, the system seemed "loose," with people sitting wherever they chose despite having assigned seats and baggage brought into the cabin.

"It was just different protocols that I wasn't used to," he said.