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A Year After Tragedy, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl Is Playing Again -- And Thriving

Players and fans commemorate the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl air disaster one year before at a game in Novosibirsk, Russia, on September 6, 2012.
PRAGUE -- A visiting team from Russia warms up for an ordinary match in an arena in Prague. But the players warming up in the Czech capital aren't members of any ordinary squad -- they play for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

Just over a year ago, every member of that team was killed in an airline crash that shocked and saddened the hockey world.

On September 7, 2011, the team was set to fly from Yaroslavl, in central Russia, to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, for its season opener in the Continental Hockey League (KHL). But minutes after takeoff, the team's plane slammed into a tower and went down in flames 2 kilometers from the airport.

A year later, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is not only playing, but with a roster of new players it is thriving -- sitting near the top of the KHL's Western Conference.

Tim Rowe, the team's American coach, won't rule out some form of divine intervention as a factor in the team's success this season.

"I'm not being strange when I say this: I think we're getting some help from up above in the type of season we're having. [Somebody] is definitely looking out over us, and it's a good feeling," Rowe says.

"There's a calmness over this team every night that I haven't been around too often and it's an awful lot of fun to be a part of it," he adds. "The coaches are just a part of it. The players are the ones doing all the work. They're the ones making this a successful season."

Bringing Lokomotiv Back To Life

Rowe says that the coaches and the players feel "honored" to help resurrect Lokomotiv, three-time Russian-league champions before joining the newly formed KHL five years ago.

He sees no evidence that last year's tragedy is taking a psychological toll on this year's squad.

"You've got to remember they all knew somebody on the team -- or they played against the guys -- so there's a relationship. And a lot of these guys who came, came because their friends were on that plane," Rowe explains.

"So I think they take it on as a mission of theirs, I guess -- if you want to call it that -- and an honor. I think it's an honor to come here and be part of the rebuilding team to help the organization get back on its feet."

Every member of the team was killed in an airline crash in September 2011 that shocked and saddened the hockey world.
Every member of the team was killed in an airline crash in September 2011 that shocked and saddened the hockey world.

Before every Lokomotiv home game, a bell is rung in honor of those who died in September 2011. Among those who perished were Slovak star Pavol Demitra, Belarusian standout Ruslan Salei, three players from Czech world championship teams, and 14 Russian players, including rising young stars Aleksandr Vasyunov and Ivan Tkachenko.

Mark Flood, a Canadian player for the team, says the ceremony is a strong motivating factor.

"We're reminded of it every day and we know what it's like to put [on] this crest every day for practice or a game," he says. "So we're highly motivated and definitely our season is dedicated to those guys."

Likewise, Russian player Yegor Yakovlev says the team is committed to honoring the former team.

"Of course with what happened last year to the team, we are playing for those guys, trying to honor the team that was," he says.

Remembering The Players

Another Russian player, Viktor Kozlov, was with Ufa's Salavat Ulayev last year. The team was playing Atlant in the league opener in Bashkortostan when league commissioner Aleksandr Medvedev interrupted the game, walked out onto the ice, and told disbelieving players and fans alike what had happened. The game was canceled.

Kozlov says he was "shocked" and numbed by the news. Now, a year later, he is with Lokomotiv. Kozlov says that although life goes on, the former team must not be forgotten.

He points to a charity match played earlier in the year in Zlin, in the Czech Republic, the hometown of Karl Rachunek, one of the three Czech players to die in the crash.

"Yeah, of course, we remember the guys, like Karl Rachunek, with the game with Zlin," he says. "Yeah, it's difficult."

And although Lokomotiv lost its game against Prague Lev, they are aiming to come out as winners in overcoming last year's tragedy.
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.