Ice hockey stars die when Russian jet crashes

3 Ex-Panthers among jet crash victims

TUNOSHNA, Russia (AP) -- A Russian jet carrying a top ice hockey team slammed into a riverbank moments after takeoff Wednesday, killing at least 43 people in one of the worst plane crashes ever involving a sports team. Two other people on board were critically injured.

The Sun Sentinel reports the death toll included three former Florida Panthers, Karlis Skrastins, Ruslan Salei and Alexander Karpovtsev. Skrastins played for Florida in 2007-08 and 08-09, scoring five goals with 14 assists in 97 games.

Both Russia and the world of hockey were left stunned by the deaths of so many international stars in one catastrophic event.

The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the Yak-42 plane crashed into the shores of the Volga River immediately after leaving the airport near the western city of Yaroslavl, 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Moscow. It was sunny at the time.

Russian television showed footage of the flaming wreck in the river as divers worked to recover bodies.

The plane was carrying the Lokomotiv ice hockey team from Yaroslavl to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where the team was to play Thursday against Dinamo Minsk in the opening game of the season for the Kontinental Hockey League. The ministry said the plane had 45 people on board, including 37 passengers and eight crew.

Officials said Russian player Alexander Galimov survived the crash along with a crewmember.

The Emergency Ministry said Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek, Swedish goalie Stefan Liv, Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon and Latvian defenseman Karlis Skrastins were among those killed.

"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."

Several hundred mourning fans wearing jerseys and scarves gathered in the evening at the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv stadium to pay their respects.

In recent years, Russia and the other former Soviet republics have had some of the world's worst air traffic safety records. Experts blame the poor safety record on the age of the aircraft, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality.

The plane that crashed was built in 1993 and belonged to a small Moscow-based Yak Service company.

Swarms of police and rescue crews rushed to Tunoshna, a village with a blue-domed church on the banks of the Volga River. One of the plane's engines could be seen poking out of the river and a flotilla of boats combed the water for bodies. Divers struggled to heft the bodies of large, strong athletes in stretchers up the muddy, steep riverbank.

Resident Irina Prakhova saw the plane going down, then heard a loud bang and saw a plume of smoke.

"It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong," said Prakhova, who said she was on her way to a local pump to collect buckets of water. "I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on."

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent the nation's transport minister to the site, 10 miles (15 kilometers) east of Yaroslavl. President Dmitry Medvedev also planned to tour the crash site.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is a leading force in Russian hockey and came third in the KHL last year. McCrimmon, who took over in May, was most recently an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings, and played for years in the NHL for Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Hartford and Phoenix.

The Russian team also featured several top European players and former NHL stars, including Slovakian forward and national team captain Pavol Demitra, who played in the NHL for the St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks.

The KHL is an international club league that pits together teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia. Lokomotiv was a three-time Russian League champion in 1997, 2002-2003. It took bronze last season.

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 Kontinental 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.

Tomas Kral, the president of the Czech ice hockey association, was shocked to hear the news of the Czech players' deaths.

"Jan Marek, Karel Rachunek, and Josef Vasicek contributed greatly to the best successes of our ice hockey in the recent years, first of all to the golden medals at the world championships in 2005 and 2010," Kral said. "The were excellent players, but also great friends and personalities. That's how we will remember them."

Medvedev has announced plans

to take aging Soviet-built planes out of service starting next year. The short- and medium-range Yak-42 has been in service since 1980 and about 100 are still being used by Russian carriers.

In June, another Russian passenger jet crashed in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk, killing 47 people. The crash of that Tu-134 plane has been blamed on pilot error.

In past plane crashes involving sports teams, 75 Marshall University football players, coaches, fans and airplane crew died in Huntington, West Virginia, on Nov. 14, 1970, on the way home from a game. Thirty-six of the dead were players.

Thirty members of the Uruguayan rugby club Old Christians were killed in a crash in the Andes in 1972.

The entire 18-member U.S. figure skating team died in a crash on their way to the 1961 world championships in Brussels, and the Torino soccer team lost 18 players in a 1949 crash near Turin, Italy.

In 1979, a plane heading from Soviet republic of Uzbekistan to Minsk collided in mid-air with another passenger plane, killing 178 people. Seventeen members of the Pakhtakor Tashkent soccer team were killed.

A plane crash in 1950 near the Russian city of Sverdlov, now called Yekaterinburg, claimed the lives of 13 players and officials in the air force's ice hockey squad, while the Munich air crash of 1958 cost eight Manchester United players their lives.

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Vladimir Isachenkov and Peter Leonard in Moscow, Steve Wilson in London and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS information on Marshall University crash. )

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