Thursday, September 8, 2011

Russian Hockey Team Killed

Yesterday in Russia, a plane carrying the hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, of the Kontinental Hockey League, crashed shortly after takeoff on their way to Belarus. All but two people on the flight were killed, including all but one player on the team, left wing Alexander Galimov, and four members of Lokomotiv's farm team. A crew member, flight engineer Alexander Sizov, is the other survivor. The two survivors are both in critical condition. Lokomotiv was to play its first game of the season.

The plane, according to investigators, was still on its wheels 400 meters past the end of the runway, and after getting airborne, hit a radio tower and burst into flames, crashing into the Tunoshenka River, which feeds into the nearby Volga.

Lokomotiv is known as one of the top teams in the league, with three Russian league titles and having finished third in the KHL last year, so aside from the tragedy of the event in and of itself, the KHL lost a huge cache of talent. The city of Yaroslavl is also a hockey hotbed; sportswriter Slava Malamud of Russia's Sport-Express compares the city's sporting profile to Buffalo, Edmonton and Calgary, smaller-market cities where hockey is the main game in town.

So that the club can still field a team for the season, KHL president Alexander Medvedev has requested that the other 23 teams in the KHL donate up to three players each. This resembles the response to a similar tragedy in 1979, when the soccer team Pakhtakor Tashkent was killed when their plane collided with another on their way to play Dinamo Minsk. Pakhtakor was given donated players from the rest of the league and given safety from relegation for three seasons. Right now, though, that's the furthest thing from the minds of Yaroslavl fans, some of which have accused Medvedev of failing to show proper respect, and some of which have also blamed him for holding a preseason forum in Yaroslavl's home stadium that forced Lokomotiv to open the season on the road (coincidentally, also in Minsk), thus necessitating the fatal plane trip.

Also receiving blame is Russia's commercial airplane fleet, notorious for its age, lack of funding and lax safety standards. The specific airline carrying Lokomotiv, Yak Service, had been previously prohibited from entering EU airspace over safety concerns. The aircraft itself had also been prohibited in 2009 during service under another airline, and in its current state, it would have been prohibited again regardless of airline.

It's not just Lokomotiv taking flights on planes like this. Jamie Rivers, who played for CSKA Moscow four years ago, recalled some of the flights he took: "There were a lot of flights we went on where I put in the iPod and tried to go to sleep and just figured well if we go down, we go down, I don't want to know about it."

In response to the crash, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has demanded reform in the Russian airline industry. Many of the problems in the industry come from smaller carriers; the larger Russian airlines have been shoring up their safety standards and account for 85% of the flights. It's the other 15% where the problems largely lay. Regulations are soon to come into effect that will essentially drive those smaller carriers out of business, including Yak Service. By 2012, airlines flying routes with planes of at least 50 seats must have a fleet of 10 planes; by 2013, they must have 20 planes.

I join everyone else in extending fullest condolences to everyone connected with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

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