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Forever heroes: Spirit of tragic Russian hockey stars lives on

By Phil Black, CNN
updated 3:09 PM EDT, Fri September 28, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 37 players and officials from Lokomotiv were killed in plane crash on September 7 2011
  • Flight was scheduled to land in Minsk but slammed into river just after take off
  • Sergei Shevchenko was the history teacher and principal of 10 players
  • Shevchenko: "They were heroes of their time."

(CNN) -- Sergei Shevchenko is standing in an old Soviet era school building, staring at photos on a wall. The images show 10 smiling young men, wearing hockey jerseys.

"Vitali Anikeyenko. I remember this young guy very well. He was very kind. He came from Kiev," Shevchenko says, pointing to a picture.

"Maxim Shuvalov was the youngest. Born in 1993. He had just graduated from school."

Russia mourns hockey players killed in plane crash

Shevchenko knew them all. He was their history teacher and principal at Yaroslavl's School Number 9. He watched them learn, grow and realize their dream of playing for the only professional sporting team anyone in this small Russian city really cares about -- the Lokomotiv Hockey Club.

Fans lit candles and held a vigil for the Lokomotiv players who perished in the airplane crash on September 7 2011.<br/><br/> Fans lit candles and held a vigil for the Lokomotiv players who perished in the airplane crash on September 7 2011.

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Lokomotiv Hockey heroes remembered Lokomotiv Hockey heroes remembered
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Those 10 men were among the 37 players and officials from Lokomotiv who died when their plane crashed on September 7th, 2011.

"They were truly heroes of their time," Shevchenko says. "Successful, healthy, strong and beautiful. Of course everyone wanted to be like them and they were icons to everybody."

School Number Nine gives an insight into what ice hockey and Lokomotiv mean to the people of Yaroslavl.

Parents send their children here to learn maths, history, literature and hockey. The school set up its hockey program 20 years ago after teachers noticed too many students were skipping class to stay on the ice.

Shevchenko says many boys from the age of five decide they want to spend their life playing hockey and the school's job is to support them.

NHL feels the loss from Russian plane crash

"Training, games, everything here is managed to achieve one goal - to make the students real, professional hockey players," he says.

"The spirit of hockey throughout these years has filled the life of this city so deeply it's now impossible to say where Lokomotiv ends and where Yaroslavl begins. They are one."

That bond between the city and its team was shown to the world in the days after the plane crash.

The Russian built Yak-42 was supposed to carry the Lokomotiv players to Minsk for their first regular season match of Russia's top competition, the Kontinental Hockey League.

The plane only stayed in the air a few moments after takeoff before slamming into a nearby river. 44 people on board were killed. One member of the crew survived. Investigators blamed pilot error.

Dozens killed as Russian plane carrying hockey team crashes

The city's grief was overwhelming and one year on emotions are still raw. On the first anniversary of the crash large crowds of people visited the club's arena and the cemetery where 14 of the men are buried. They left flowers and wept openly.

Friends and families of the victims marked the day by returning to the site of the plane's fiery impact. They prayed and threw flowers into the river. Some fell to their knees and broke down, still consumed by loss.

The trauma is also felt far beyond Yaroslavl, throughout the international ice hockey community. Many of Lokomotiv's players and coaches came from across Russia, Europe and North America.

Lokomotiv's head coach was Canadian Brad McCrimmon. His wife Maureen, daughter Carlin and son Liam traveled from the United States to be at the crash site one year after his death.

They held each other and stood by the river with hundreds of other people who feel the same pain.

Probe: Pilot error caused crash that killed hockey team

"It was very hard but I couldn't imagine being anywhere else today," Maureen McCrimmon says. "It feels just as bad as it did the day we found out. Sometimes I think it hasn't even sunk in yet. We still can't believe it when we come here and see this."

While many in Yaroslavl have focused on healing, the Lokomotiv hockey club has also had to dedicate a lot of effort to rebuilding.

It carefully selected new players and coaches and trained hard to achieve the club's ambitious goal of returning as a competitive force in top level hockey just one year after losing its whole team.

"We're hoping to give that team an awful lot of pride to look down on and watch the way we play in a very professional manner," says Lokomotiv's new head coach, American Tom Rowe.

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On September 16th almost 10,000 screaming people watched the new Lokomotiv play a KHL game on home ice for the first time.

The Yaroslavl crowd roared and desperately willed them to victory. It wasn't to be. They lost 2-1. But Lokomotiv's fans still cheered the players as they left the ice.

In Yaroslavl overwhelming sadness is slowly giving way to pride and hope. But the loss of the community's most loved heroes will not be forgotten.

Russian hockey player dies from injuries after plane crash

At School Number 9 principal Sergei Shevchenko says he now takes all new students to see the memorial to the lost players. It sits next to another plaque, remembering former students who died in Russia's recent wars.

In Shevchenko's office he gently holds his most valued possession, a hockey stick that used to belong to his former pupil and Lokomotiv star Ivan Tkachenko. It was recovered from the plane's wreckage.

"In my arms is a piece of what Ivan used to touch, with what he went into battle with each game, with what he was never apart from for all his life, devoting it to this sport. It makes you want to be closer to him and his favorite activity. But it's very sad that the thing that Ivan used to hold exists when Ivan does not."

Editor's note:

Healing through Hockey -- a special World Sport documentary on the tragedy will air on the CNN International Network:

9/29/12 at 3:00pm EST (premiere) and 9:00pm EST

9/30/12 at 6:00am EST and 10:00pm EST

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