GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD/AP) - Three former Grand Rapids Griffins and two former Detroit Red Wings were among 43 people killed Wednesday in a plane crash in Russia.
They were with the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team that was traveling to Belarus for a Kontinental Hockey League game. The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the plane had 45 people on board, including 37 passengers and eight crew.
Three of those Lokomotiv players used to play in Grand Rapids --
- Forward Pavol Demitra starred during the Griffins' inaugural 1996-97 season before becoming the first Griffin to advance to the NHL. The 36-year-old was a three-time NHL All-Star; he scored 304 goals in 847 games for St. Louis, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Vancouver. He was the national team captain for his native Slovakian team, which a world championship bronze medal in 2003. He was a three-time Olympian.
- Goalie Stefan Liv won 15 games for Grand Rapids in 2006-07. The 30-year-old was a backup when his native Sweden won the gold medal during the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy. He never played in the NHL.
- Defenseman Karel Rachunek was a member of the 1999-00 squad that reached the IHL Turner Cup Finals. The 32-year-old played 371 NHL games for the Senators, Rangers and Devils. He won a world championship with his native Czech Republic in 2010.
The Lokomotiv's head coach, Brad McCrimmon, was also on the plane. The 52-year-old from Canada most recently an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings before taking the KHL job in May. He played in 1,222 NHL games between 1979-97, compiling 81 goals and 322 assists for Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Hartford and Phoenix.
Ruslan Salei, 36, from Belarus, was also killed. The defenseman played for the Red Wings last season, and in 917 NHL games overall, totaling 45 goals and 149 assists for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Florida Panthers, and Colorado Avalanche as well.
Officials said player Alexander Galimov survived the crash along with a crewmember. "Their state of health is very grave. But there is still some hope," said Alexander Degyatryov, chief doctor at Yaroslavl's Solovyov Hospital.
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 northeast of Moscow. The weather was sunny and clear at the time. The plane was built in 1993 and belonged to a small Moscow-based Yak Service company.
Russian media said the plane struggled to gain altitude and then crashed into a signal tower, shattering into pieces. Russian television showed a flaming fragment of the plane in the river as divers worked feverishly to recover bodies.
Swarms of police and rescue crews rushed to the scene in Tunoshna. 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.
One resident, Irina Pryakhova, 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."
She said rescuers pulled victims' bodies out of the Volga River. "I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on," Pryakhova said.
The cause of the crash was not immediately apparent, but Russian news agencies cited unnamed local officials as saying it may have been caused by technical problems.
The Lokomotiv team was traveling from Yaroslavl to Minsk, Belarus, where it was to play Thursday against Dinamo Minsk in the opening game of the season.
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is a leading force in Russian hockey. 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.
More than 2,000 mourning fans wearing jerseys and scarves and waving team flags gathered in the evening outside Yaroslavl Lokomotiv's stadium to pay their respects. Riot police were also present as fans chanted sport songs in memory of the athletes.
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.
President Dmitry 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 in service with 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.
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