TUNOSHNA, Russia >> A private 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.
Both Russia and the world of hockey were left stunned by the deaths of so many international stars in one catastrophic event. The International Ice Hockey Federation said 27 players of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team were killed, along with 2 coaches and 7 club officials.
Russian NHL star Alex Ovechkin tweeted: "I’m in shock!!!!!R.I.P …"
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 northeast of Moscow. The weather was sunny and clear at the time. 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.
The plane was carrying the team from Yaroslavl to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where they were to play Thursday against Dinamo Minsk in the opening game of the Kontinental Hockey League season. It had 45 people on board, including 37 passengers and eight crew, the ministry said.
Officials said Russian 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.
Among the dead were Lokomotiv coach and NHL veteran Brad McCrimmon, a Canadian, as well as Pavol Demitra, who played for the St. Louis Blues and the Vancouver Canucks and was the Slovakian national team captain. Also killed were Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek, Swedish goalie Stefan Liv, Latvian defenseman Karlis Skrastins and defenseman Ruslan Salehi of Belarus, the Emergency Ministry said.
"Though it occurred thousands of miles away from our home arenas, this tragedy represents a catastrophic loss to the hockey world — including the NHL family, which lost so many fathers, sons, teammates and friends," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
The crash comes on top of an already mournful year for the NHL in which three of the league’s enforcers were found dead: Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and recently retired Wade Belak.
The cause of Wednesday’s crash was not immediately apparent, but Russian news agencies cited unnamed local officials as saying it may have been due to technical problems. The plane was built in 1993 and belonged to a small Moscow-based Yak Service company.
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.
Swarms of police and rescue crews rushed to Tunoshna, a ramshackle village with a blue-domed church on the banks of the Volga River 10 miles east of Yaroslavl. 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.
"It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong," said Prakhova. "I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on."
More than 2,000 mourning fans wearing jerseys and scarves and waving team flags gathered in the evening outside Lokomotiv’s stadium in Yaroslavl to pay their respects. Riot police stood guard as fans chanted sport songs in honor of the dead athletes.
Yaroslavl governor Sergei Vakhrukov promised the crowd that the Lokomotiv team would be rebuilt from scratch, prompting anger from some fans at a perceived lack of respect for the dead.
Lokomotiv is a leading force in Russian hockey and came third in the KHL last year. It was also a three-time Russian League champion in 1997, 2002 and 2003.
McCrimmon, who took over as coach in May, was most recently an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings, and played for years in the NHL for Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Calgary, Hartford and Phoenix.
"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.
A cup game between hockey teams Salavat Yulaev and Atlant in the central Russian city of Ufa was called off in mid-match after news of the crash was announced. Russian television showed an empty arena in Ufa as grief-stricken fans abandoned the stadium.
The KHL is an international club league of teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia.
Russia was hoping to showcase Yaroslavl as a modern and vibrant city this week at an international forum attended by heads of state, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, so the crash came as a particularly bitter blow.
Many in the Czech Republic also took the news hard.
"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," said Tomas Kral, the president of the Czech ice hockey association. "The were excellent players, but also great friends and personalities. That’s how we will remember them."
Fans planned to gather Thursday at the Old Town Square in the Czech capital of Prague, where national team players usually celebrate, to commemorate the three Czech players.
In the western Slovak city of Trencin, where Demitra started his career and where he played during the NHL lockout 2004-05 season, hundreds fans gathered outside the ice hockey stadium Wednesday night to light candles in his memory.
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, a Tu-134, crashed in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk, killing 47 people. That crash 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, coming 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 18 members of the Torino soccer team died near Turin, Italy, in a 1949 crash.
In 1979, a plane heading from Soviet republic of Uzbekistan to Minsk collided mid-air with another passenger plane, killing 178 people. Seventeen members of the Pakhtakor Tashkent team on that plane 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.
Vladimir Isachenkov and Peter Leonard in Moscow, Steve Wilson in London and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.