KHL president: Lokomotiv will rebuild

MOSCOW -- The Russian ice hockey team decimated by a plane crash will be rebuilt in time to take part in this year's Continental Hockey League season, according to the league's president.

All but one of the 28 Lokomotiv Yaroslavl players traveling to Belarus for their first game of the season was killed when the Russian Yak-42 jet crashed on Wednesday. It was one of the worst aviation disasters in sports history.

KHL president Alexander Medvedev said Thursday that each team in the league should volunteer up to three players each toward building a new Lokomotiv squad. He says that will free up between 40 and 45 players for Lokomotiv to pick.

"The 18 KHL clubs whose representatives I have managed to speak with have supported this proposal," Medvedev said in remarks to Atlant Mytischi hockey club's press service.

Along with recruiting from other clubs, Medvedev said Lokomotiv will promote five players from its youth team.

The KHL is an international club league that features 24 teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia.

Lokomotiv is a leading force in Russian hockey, winning the Russian League championship in 1997, 2002 and 2003. The team finished third in the KHL last season.

Among those killed in Wednesday's crash were Lokomotiv coach and NHL veteran Brad McCrimmon, a Canadian; assistant coach Alexander Karpovtsev, one of the first Russians to have his name etched on the Stanley Cup as a member of the New York Rangers; and Pavol Demitra, who played for the St. Louis Blues and the Vancouver Canucks and was the Slovakian national team captain.

The news hit hard for Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who not only played under McCrimmon but also was close friends with Demitra. Chara grew up in Trencin, Slovakia while Demitra was from neighboring Dubnica.

"It was huge, and still it's horrible," Chara said of the crash. "It was tragic and shook up the whole world, the hockey world especially. ... I know Pav very well obviously growing up with him and being my neighbor. And then other guys I played with and obviously a coach I had, Brad, in the Islanders system. When you get to know players as people and friends it's just devastating."

Chara spoke highly of Demitra, noting how he was not only a skilled player but a well-liked person and a good father.

"Pavol was a guy who was always easy-going," Chara said. "He was always friendly with everybody and never really had a conflict with anybody. He was really a very popular guy with other guys. We also obviously know he was a extremely talented player. People probably don't know also how dedicated a dad he was, always spending time with his kids and family and I think that speaks for itself too. He had offers from the NHL but he chose to return back home and be there for his kids and his wife and they chose the school system in Slovakia. So it's a very, very sad time right now."

Other standouts killed were Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek, Swedish goalie Stefan Liv, Latvian defenseman Karlis Skrastins and defenseman Ruslan Salei of Belarus.

Officials said Russian player Alexander Galimov survived the crash along with a crew member. Galimov's condition is said to be critical.

Medvedev's suggestion of resurrecting Lokomotiv by recruiting players from other teams has a precedent in Soviet history.

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

After the crash, all Soviet top-flight sides gave up three players to Pakhtakor so the club could play in the national championship. Pakhtakor also was guaranteed exemption from possible relegation for three seasons.

On Wednesday evening, Yaroslavl governor Sergei Vakhrukov addressed a crowd of some 3,000 mourners outside the Lokomotiv stadium and promised the team would be rebuilt. But that vow prompted anger from some fans over a perceived lack of respect for the dead.

KHL games planned for the weekend have been postponed. Games will resume Monday, the KHL said in a statement on its website.

A memorial ceremony for victims of the crash will be held Saturday at Lokomotiv Yaroslavl's hockey arena.

On Thursday morning, hundreds of residents prayed for the victims at the city's Russian Orthodox cathedral, many wearing team scarves as religious headcoverings.

Hundreds more came to add flowers to the growing mounds outside the city's sports arena. Some wrote notes in memory of the players and lit candles. Many fans described the hockey team as the pride of the city and called the players beloved local heroes.

"The loss of the team is the loss of the symbol of the city," said Mikhail Sergeichev, a 22-year-old student. "We had a history, we had a legend, and we hope to God that of that legend one person will survive."

In Prague on Thursday, hundreds gathered at the Old Town Square, in the heart of the Czech Republic capital, to honor the three Czech hockey players who died. People lit candles around a simple impromptu monument formed by two ice hockey sticks. Some wore the national team jersey and chanted the names of the three players. Some signed condolences books for them.

"The winners forever," one entry read.

"It's a tragedy," said Petr Kubalek, 28, from Prague. "That's all I can say. I knew Marek personally. Rachunek was of the top defensemen."

The Czech ice hockey federation plans a farewell ceremony for the players after their bodies are transported home.

In Yaroslavl, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev called for immediate changes in the country's troubled aviation industry, including sharply reducing the number of airlines. Experts blame the problems on an aging fleet, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality.

Investigators could not immediately pinpoint what caused the Yak-42 jet to crash into the banks of the Volga River shortly after takeoff from Yaroslavl, 150 miles northeast of Moscow. Workers labored Thursday to raise the plane's shattered tail section, site of one of the plane's on-board recorders.

The plane crashed on the opening day of an international forum that was to showcase Yaroslavl as a modern and vibrant Russian city. Medvedev laid flowers at the crash site Thursday and met with officials, and then opened his speech at the forum by calling for a moment of silence the victims.

"The number of air companies should be radically reduced and it's necessary to do this within the shortest time," Medvedev told the conference. Experts say smaller carriers sometimes lack funds to properly maintain their fleet and tend to cut corners on safety.

The crashed jet was built in 1993 and one of its three engines was replaced a month ago, deputy transport minister Valery Okulov said. It is unclear whether technical failures played a role in the crash, but the plane apparently struggled to gain altitude and then hit a signal tower before breaking apart along the Volga.

Okulov said federal transportation authorities are considering whether to halt flights by the 57 Yak-42s still in service in Russia, the state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

Some hockey fans blamed the crash on Medvedev's forum itself, which was held in the Lokomotiv arena, making it impossible for the team to play its first game of the season at home.

Thousands of fans gathered outside the arena Wednesday night to mourn the players and shouts of "Down with the summit!" and "The summit is guilty!" were heard. Forum participants were told Thursday to take off their badges before heading into town.

Information from ESPNBoston.com's James Murphy and The Associated Press was used in this report.