Thoughts on the Yaroslavl tragedy

I never want to wake up to news like this, whether it’s about family, friends, relatives or a hockey player I only met once but whom I admired for years as a kid.

When I wiped the crust out of my eyes and pressed the buttons on my phone to find a text from our intrepid editor Marcello D this morning, I felt like another part of my childhood had been ripped away, like tearing a photograph out of an album and letting it be blown off on a malicious wind.

Brad McCrimmon, dead at age 52, along with the entire Yaroslavl Lokomotiv club in a plane crash.

It struck me harder than the shocking news of Peter Zezel’s death in May of 2009 — for one thing, I was at home instead of working and trying to track down sources, and for another, it was just one man losing his battle with a disease instead of 45 dying in horrible circumstances.

So now it stands that four players from the team which stoked my interest in the Flyers and the sport have died way too early. Pelle, Miro Dvorak, Zezel and now The Beast. That really blows.

You think they’re going to live forever, existing in real life at their true age and also permanently trapped in younger days, in whatever time they were taped against whatever foe they faced before being transferred to YouTube and living on in endless downloads.

New Hall of Famer and former Flyers defenseman Mark Howe, on 94 WIP this afternoon, called the Dodsland, Saskatchewan native a good man, a man’s man, a great husband and father…but one who never towed the line and always spoke up and stood up for himself.  Howe also said that he recognized that he received too much credit — and McCrimmon too little — for their combined success during their 1984-87 partnership on the Philly blue line.

It was true, and straight from one who knows. Howe possessed so much skill both offensively and defensively that it was easy to discount McCrimmon. But they complemented each other so well, with Howe usually carrying the puck and McCrimmon clearing the way with his well-timed checks. Howe had a deceptively accurate wrister and McCrimmon had a sneakily effective slapshot. Both men were never the same without each other.

It was the beginning of the end of the glory days of the 1980s when Bob Clarke dealt Number 10 to Calgary for cash in the Summer of 1987. I believe the Flyers defense did not recover until the Montreal trade in February, 1995 which netted Eric Desjardins.

And if it is indeed true that the Flyers organization refused to set McCrimmon up as head coach of the Phantoms – essentially forcing him over to Russia to try and kick-start his goal of becoming an NHL head coach – as I have seen mentioned, that is yet another unfortunate black mark.

I do not agree that the club is responsible in any way for his death, but Clarke was openly contemptuous of McCrimmon as a teammate and general manager. It’s not hard to see that old-school of a grudge carried over to the present.

I heard Lisa Hillary on Daily News Live this evening say that she heard there would only be one or two games cancelled in the wake of the tragedy, and she added that she thought it was “incomprehensible.”

I figured she meant that it’s only morally acceptable that everything should stop in the wake of the accident. It really struck a dissonant chord with me.

Only in America do we face tragedy with incessant navel gazing and act like the world has stopped spinning. It happened on September 11, 2001, when the most despicable acts ever committed on American soil ground the gears to a halt. For a solid week the skies were still, stadiums were empty, radio stations which normally pumped out rock suddenly fielded callers in the throes of deep psychoanalysis and we were bombarded with ultra-somber celebrity tributes on all TV channels. 

I felt, despite the magnitude of the destruction, that it was all too much, no disrespect intended to the thousands who lost loved ones. I thought the emotional release and celebratory nature of the Concert for New York in October was a better tribute than the hastily cobbled-together and funereal America: A Tribute to Heroes.

It’s happened again this off-season with the trio of unfortunate, and let me be clear on this — still unrelated — deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. Suddenly, because it all hadn’t happened before in such rapid succession, the floodgates opened. Shock was expressed, garments were rended, straws were grasped at, illogical leaps were made, and all sorts of probing questions were asked in the name of saving lives.

Too bad they were the wrong ones.

I shudder to think about the endless introspection and boundless gloom that would grip the North American hockey world if the crash had happened in the USA or Canada to a pro team on any level. I strongly suspect the reaction would rapidly approach paralysis by analysis — which is just as counterproductive as ignoring the issue.

But it’s a much different story in Eastern Europe, which has endured roughly a millenium’s worth of upheaval starting with the Mongol hordes.

Just a short recent list of the horrific events in that region include: brutal oppressions countered by the opulence of the czars, the conquering and re-conquering of Poland, mistreatment of the Jews, the Armenian genocide, the Russian Civil War and onset of Communism, the Ukrainian famine, the Katyn Forest massacre, the bloody battles between Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II, Stalin’s party purges, Siberian labor camps, Chernobyl, the Beslan hostage crisis, Chechnya, the Polish plane crash in the Katyn region last year, and now this.

These people are made of stronger stuff. Steeped in upheaval, 50 generations’ worth, so they’ve got a firm grip on how to mourn and they know how to keep going one day at a time while remembering the dead. Death seems to be treated more as an active part of life there than it is here.

So I am not surprised at all that the KHL intends to move forward as best they could, with a plan in place to resurrect the Lokomotiv, and keep the 2011-12 season on track. They couldn’t foresee an event on this scale on the eve of another year, but have 23 other existing clubs with which to function.

I ask that you do not judge their actions and reactions to this awfulness by our narrow standards, but by understanding theirs.

What the Russians don’t seem to have a grip on, is control of their own vast inner workings.

A country of 150 million, in an area almost twice that of the United States and only 20 years removed from the Hammer and Sickle, doesn’t have its shit straight. I’ve seen multiple reports today alone about how awful Russian air safety ratings have been, how old their air fleet is, and how the corruption and greed throughout the burgeoning economy — which includes the airline industry — force cost-cutting at every turn.

So, to any player of both European and North American extraction who wishes to play in the KHL due to the paycheck and reduced schedule compared to the NHL, you truly do so at your own risk. Traveling in those ancient steel tubes is not that safe, and there is nobody really looking out for you or your safety.

True, there have been close calls on North American carriers when going through storms or flying in the middle of the night as Ilya Bryzgalov and Peter Laviolette have alluded to, but we don’t have evidence of planes unable to gain altitude, splitting in two 50 meters off the ground in sunny skies and crashing in flames.

Even after all the above, what I’m left with is a vicious, empty feeling.

Sorrow for the dead, sympathy for their loved ones, anger at the loss of control and the total lack of say these men had for their fate. Incredulity that talents like Pavol Demitra, Karel Rachunek, Josef Vasicek, Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins, Alexander Karpovtsev, Igor Korolev and McCrimmon will never grace a rink anywhere in the world again.

And memories..but all good ones, for a player whose impact on the Flyers’ success helped mold me into the person who has basically lived the sport, and lived long enough to pen praiseful pieces about that legacy.

I hope lessons learned from this shocking event prevent something like it from ever happening again. That’s the best tribute to this sudden loss of life I can think of.

Unfortunately, in places where the blind eye is accompanied by the open hand, I think the timer is already ticking down on the next senseless tragedy.