YAROSLAVL, Russia (WFAN/AP) — A Russian jet carrying a top hockey team crashed while taking off Wednesday in western Russia, killing 43 people and leaving two critically injured.
The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the Yak-42 plane crashed immediately after leaving an airport near the city of Yaroslavl, on the Volga River about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Moscow.
The plane was carrying the Lokomotiv KHL team, whose top names include ex-Islanders center Josef Vasicek, former Rangers and Devils defenseman Karel Rachunek, among other players familiar to NHL fans: Pavol Demitra, Karlis Skrastins and Ruslan Salei.
Alexander Vasyunov, also on the plane, played with New Jersey for part of last season.
“On behalf of the entire Devils organization, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of the entire Lokomotiv club,” New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello said in a statement.
Vasyunov skated in 18 games for the Devils last season and scored his first NHL goal. He returned to Russiathis past summer to get more playing time and hoped to return to the Devils at some point.
Locomotiv confirmed their entire main roster was on the Yak-42.
“We have no team anymore,” a club spokesman told The New York Times. “All our starting players, and all the service people, they all burned in the crash.”
Multiple reports said that former 1994 Rangers star and Lokomotiv assistant coach Alexander Karpovtsev was also among the deceased. Officials said Russian player Alexander Galimov survived the crash along with a crewmember.
“This is the darkest day in the history of our sport. This is not only a Russian tragedy, the Lokomotiv roster included players and coaches from 10 nations,” said Rene Fasel, president of the international Ice Hockey Federation. “This is a terrible tragedy for the global ice hockey community.”
A Czech embassy official said Czech players Vasicek, Rachunek and Jan Marek were among those killed, and Latvian officials confirmed the death of Latvian defenseman Skrastins.
This is the latest in a string of tragedies to hit the hockey world. The overdose death of Derek Boogaard rocked New York fans earlier this year.
The team was heading to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where it was to play Thursday against Dinamo Minsk in the opening game of the season of the Kontinental Hockey League. The league is made up of several ex-Soviet nations.
The weather was sunny and clear at the time.
Swarms of police and rescue crews rushed to Tunoshna, a picturesque village with a blue-domed church on the banks of the Volga River. One of the engines could be seen poking out of the river and a flotilla of boats combed the water for bodies. Russian rescue workers struggled to heft the bodies of large, strong athletes in stretchers up the muddy, steep riverbank.
One resident, Irina Prakhova, saw the plane going down.
“It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong,” she said. “It went down behind the trees and there was a bang and a plume of smoke.”
“I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on,” Prakhova added.
A cup match between hockey teams Salavat Yulaev and Atlant in the central Russian city of Ufa was called off midway after news of the crash was announced by Konintental Hockey League head Alexander Medvedev.
Russian television broadcast images of an empty arena in Ufa as grief-stricken fans abandoned the stadium.
“We will do our best to ensure that hockey in Yaroslavl does not die, and that it continues to live for the people that were on that plane,” said Russian Ice Hockey Federation President Vladislav Tretyak.
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STATEMENT FROM DEVILS’ PRES./CEO/G.M. LOU LAMORIELLO
“Nothing could prepare the hockey community for the devastating news it received today. The tragic plane crash involving Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League has left all of us beyond words. I had the pleasure of knowing several members of the team, plus the entire coaching staff. In particular, Alexander Vasyunov, who played for us last season, was an outstanding young man and a gifted athlete. Captain Karel Rachunek skated for us in 2007-08. Both were members of the Devils family. On behalf of the entire Devils organization, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of the entire Lokomotiv club.”