September 7, 2011, the KHL’s Yaroslavl Lokomotiv charter plane crashed after take-off killing 44 people including the coaches, players, staffers and airline crew. Everyone in hockey knew someone on board. I had just met former Vancouver Canuck Pavol Demitra and his wife at Zdeno Chara‘s Stanley Cup party in Trencin, Slovakia two months earlier. Two months before that I had watched the tearful emotion of Demitra when as captain of the Slovakian National Team he took a farewell skate at the arena in Bratislava, knowing it was his last time wearing his country’s sweater at the World Championship. He was retiring. I spoke with him about how inspiring that was, to watch the fans there embrace him.
What he meant to me pales in comparison to what he meant to countless others. The photos of Chara crying at Demitra’s memorial service are difficult to view without choking up. The former 227th overall pick in the 1993 NHL Draft had done well, turning himself into a prolific scorer and a beloved teammate during a 15-year NHL span. His last NHL team was the Canucks; his next team was to be Lokomotiv. The plane crashed while departing for the season opener in Minsk.
Head Coach Brad McCrimmon never officially coached the team. He had just been hired. “Beast” as he was known to many, was a very successful NHL defenceman and then assistant coach, a career that spanned thirty years. His assistant coaches in Yaroslavl were Alexander Karpovtsev, who won a Stanley Cup as a rookie defenceman with the New York Rangers against the Canucks in 1994, and Igor Korolev, a centre who had played a dozen years in the NHL.
Current Abbotsford Canucks assistant coach Jeff Ulmer had a much closer view of it all, physically and emotionally. In a hockey career that included 15 seasons in Europe, the right wing from Regina had stops in the KHL twice, including the season just before the crash. He had played with victim Karel Rachunek during his time in Binghamton in the AHL, and had crossed paths with Josef Vašíček as well. Rachunek and Vasicek’s names probably ring a bell, they had both played extensively in the National Hockey League. But the man Ulmer remembers most was Lokomotiv’s gregarious goaltender Alexander Vyukhin, the all-time winningest goalie in what was previously called the Russian Superleague.
“I played with hundreds of teammates and I’ll never forget him,” said Ulmer, who had played part of the 2010-’11 season with Vyukhin with Novokuznetsk Metallurg.
“He was a little guy, a stand-up goalie who knew where you were gonna shoot before you shot. He was one of those guys who relied on instinct. Sometimes you’d come down and shoot and think you’d scored and he’d be standing there in that half of the net laughing at you. He was a goalie who smoked between periods, he’d waddle in on his pads and smoke in the shower. It was to be his last season with Lokomotiv and then he planned to be done. He was thirty-six, that was his last year and then he planned to go home and be with his kids.”
Like with Demitra, a painful twist, an irony, an unfathomable fate, for a man who was much more than just a character.
“He was a guy that looked out for us imports and would want us to go out and eat with him or go out to his favourite bar or favourite restaurant with him and stuff like that, so … that was really tough.”
For people in the hockey world it’s one of those “I remember where I was when” moments. I was having breakfast with my son, picking up the astonishing news where we so often learn it these days, on the cell phone. I was prepping to leave for the Traverse City preseason rookie tournament the next day and had been caught up in the excitement of a burgeoning season. For Ulmer, it was a closer and more poignant experience, while literally starting his next season in the German league (DEL).
“We were on the ice in Dusseldorf for practice during training camp, for one of our first games, and I looked over and saw that some of our guys were actually crying,” Ulmer remembers. “Robert Deitrich, one of the players who passed away, had played with a bunch of them and was best friends with a lot of the guys. We stopped practice and went in.”
Deitrich had previously spent three seasons with that club in the DEL and spent his final season with Mannheim before deciding to go to the KHL. The defenceman, who had played six different international tournaments for Team Germany, was 25 years old.
One of the many reasons IIHF President Rene Fasel called the crash “the darkest day in the history of our sport.”