I'm sorry. It feels like this blog has become a bit of a downer lately. I'm lonely, tragic hockey player deaths, bad poetry. Just not a lot of cheer. And I know that, without my cheer, none of you would like me. (That was a joke) Thus, after today's doozy, I hereby declare the period from September 9th to September 15th to be the second ever Week of Features. Hopefully that'll inject some life into this place again.
In two days, the Traverse City Prospects Tournament will kick off. Finally. The hockey world can start worrying about hockey again. This summer has been quite hellish for a lot of people, following the Boogaard accidental OD (here's Russo's latest excellent and harrowing piece on the matter, this one detailing the dangerous world of painkillers among pro hockey players), Rick Rypien's suicide, and Wade Belak's accidental (no longer considered a suicide) death last week. A lot of folks around the hockey community couldn't imagine things getting a whole lot lower.
Oh man, were we wrong.
By now, you've probably heard (at least in passing) of hockey's latest and greatest tragedy, because it made front-page news on CNN and BBC (though, interestingly, not on ESPN). A plane carrying the Russian pro hockey team Yaroslavl Lokomotiv crashed into a lake and exploded into flames immediately after taking off yesterday morning bound to the first game of the season. Forty-three of the forty-five people on board died instantly. The other two are still in critical condition and aren't exactly expected to survive. (The only surviving player was said to have burns covering 90% of his body and respiratory system) Eight of the players/coaches on board were former NHL players. You had the former Red Wings assistant coach embarking on his first head coaching job. Several older guys who decided they wanted to play one last year before retirement. A couple of guys wanted to play a couple seasons in their homeland before hanging 'em up. Worse, when you're talking a plane full of guys in their 20s-40s, you're looking at a lot of young wives, young kids, even young parents in some cases.
Believe it or not, when I first heard this, I didn't feel particularly affected. I don't know if it was because it was so far away or because it was so tragic it almost didn't seem real at first. However, my Twitter feed is filled with hockey analysts, beat writers, and players. And it was chaotic. I was trying to get information, because at first all we had heard was that the plane had crashed and just about everyone was dead. The quote from a team official was, "There is no hope. The team is gone." But then there were reports that this guy might not have been on the plane, that that guy may have been at home instead. One player hopped on Twitter immediately upon news of the crash to say that he wasn't on the flight. Maybe there were others? But my Twitter feed wasn't curious fans looking for info; it was guys trying to find out if their friends were dead or alive. And eventually learning, in every instance, that they were dead.
"Am hearing reports Rusty may have been at home! Anybody know if it is true?"
"They are saying Pavol is dead. Still hoping it's not real!"
"Is that official? Ruslan is dead??"
On and on and on. All day long, as hopeful tweets eventually gave way to mournful ones. It was terrible.
I think, looking back, the reason that Boogaard's and Belak's deaths had more of an emotional impact on me than Rypien's was that each had a connection to one of my two favorite NHL beat writers (Russo and Dater, respectively), so I got a more personal side of each story. Well, multiply that by just about everybody in the NHL. And then came fan reactions as word spread. It seemed like no matter who you cheer for, you lost one of your own yesterday. Fans of the Preds, Avs, Panthers, Stars, Ducks, Wings, Sens, Blues, Kings, Wild, Canucks, Hurricanes, Isles, Rangers, Leafs, Blackhawks, Jets, Coyotes, Bruins, Flyers, Flames, Whalers, and Devils all lost familiar faces. Impromptu memorials were erected by hockey fans across the continent outside of home arenas. International hockey fans wept, as some of these guys, while popular in the NHL, were absolute heroes back in Europe. Tributes from gifted writers to fan favorites and all-around-good-guy types that were suddenly gone too soon. And of course, the really sad stuff came in later, like the story about the player whose mother had a heart attack and died when she found out about the crash. Or possibly the saddest thing written in the hockey world, well, just about ever, a widely-circulated (and since-removed) blog post about the man who drove Karlis Skrastins' widow and two daughters (5 and 2) to the airport for the funeral. The girls still didn't know about the crash when he dropped them off at the airport; they were just excited to be going on a trip to see Daddy.
It's just too much, folks.
And I don't really have a "closing thought" to wrap this one up. I'm sure most of you don't care about the details about what happens now to the team, what happens in the Russian league. I can say that it's been reported that over 30 players have volunteered to play for the Yaroslavl team, and every KHL team has volunteered to offer one of their players to keep the hockey tradition in the town alive. And that's phenomenal for the town, because as unimportant as the game is in the face of something like this, it's also a huge step in the healing of that city. I can say that the two survivors have got a fighting chance if they can make it through the next two days. Apparently, men with this type of injury typically die in the third or fourth day since the accident. I can say that a lot people are now coming to grips with the reality of this situation and trying to figure out how they'll go on from here. I can say that the KHL is already taking steps to ensure safer travel accommodations for all teams (apparently teams were arranging their own travel, and this one found a cheaper option: a 1993-built passenger plane). I can say this is a summer that no hockey fan alive today is going to forget.
Other than that...I don't really know what to say. We're all ready to learn what we can discover from all of these tragedies and then close the book on these past few months.