According to recent figures from the PEW Research Center, 91% of Americans remember exactly what they were doing at the time of the attacks on New York and Washington DC on September 11th, 2001.
I’m not sure that many hockey fans remember what they were doing when Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crashed into a lake next to the airport from which they had just taken off for Minsk on September 7th, 2011. I know I do.
The picture to the right really says it all.
It’s a screenshot from our Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team roster page here on Eliteprospects.com, captured by a reporter at the Edmonton Journal just two days after the accident.
Just about all of them, dead.
Alexander Galimov doesn’t have a cross next to his name in this picture. He was being treated in a local hospital at the time. The only team member to survive the initial crash, he was said to have been conscious upon recovery, but furthermore put in a medically induced coma to be treated for severe burns. He died five days later, leaving flight crew member Alexander Sizov as the only survivor of an accident that shook the world of hockey.
All 37 members of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl had died before the season had even started. An entire team and its staff, wiped out in a matter of seconds.
Among the dead were several World champions, such as Czechs Jan Marek and Josef Vasicek. Coaching staff included Stanley Cup champions Brad McCrimmon and Alexander Karpovtsev. Other long time NHL:ers among the dead were Ruslan Salei, Pavol Demitra and Igor Korolev.
As news of the plane crash broke in Swedish media, we began to realize that one of the victims was most likely Stefan Liv.
He was never a household name in North America. Most hockey fans on the western shores of the Atlantic pond probably hadn’t even heard of him. Drafted by the Red Wings, Liv played a full season in Grand Rapids, but the AHL really wasn’t for him and he decided he was probably better off at home.
Still, in September 2011, he was one of the most decorated players on that Yaroslavl team with three Swedish championships, a World championship and an Olympic gold medal to his name.
But that’s not really the point here.
Stefan Liv was one of those athletes just about everybody loved. Fans and foes alike. Not because of the silverware in his cabinet, but because his heart was solid gold.
Personally, I never knew him at all. I played against him a few times when we were teenagers, but in 2011, I wasn’t yet working in sports media and had never talked to him. Still, he was one of those guys who could put a smile on your face even as he had just put your team out of the playoffs. A natural charmer and a happy camper, he never even got a whiff of media training and whenever someone put a microphone to his mouth, you knew just about anything could come out. We loved every minute of it, even people who normally didn’t care for hockey at all. He was one of those athletes whose personality goes way beyond the sport itself.
On September 7th, 2011, I was devastated as the entire sports community around me when I it began to soak in that he might actually be gone. All I could do was stare at my computer screen and wait for updates.
At first, denial.
Maybe Stefan wasn’t on that plane at all? Maybe he was injured or scratched or maybe he had been sent to Minsk by other means of transportation that day? He wasn’t too keen on flying, one of many KHL players not very impressed with the security measures of Russian domestic aviation.
Later, reality check.
Of course he was on that plane. They were on their way to play the season opener, he was a star signing and one of the top goaltenders in the league. At age 30 he was at the peak of his career and we had heard he was in great shape, too.
Hope, the last resort.
He probably survived, right? Come on! When clutch was needed, he was the go-to-guy. At that, he was always one of the luckiest goaltenders ever to set foot on a sheet of ice. Surely, he must have picked just the right seat on the airplane. He had probably emerged from that burning hellhole of a wreck just the way we knew him – carrying a wounded man on each shoulder, eager to go back inside and bail a few more of them out before the whole thing blew up.
Stefan Liv was dead, as were all his teammates. Fans of Yaroslavl had lost their entire club. Fans of many other teams had lost their former heroes, players that had won them championships and signed them jerseys that still hung from their walls. Thousands of hockey players around the world had lost former teammates.
At least, that was how I thought of them at the time.
Through the death of Stefan Liv, I also began to realize that first and foremost, every player on Lokomotiv Yaroslavl who died that day were someone’s son. Most of them were someone’s brother, husband or boyfriend.
Many of them were also fathers. I know Stefan was.
Just last week, we did a feature story on David Gunnarsson of DaveArt. He paints the coolest goalie masks in the world and has just about every superstar netminder in the NHL on his client list. When asked which one of all those masks that had meant the most to him, he didn’t have to think very long.
– I recently painted one with Stefan Liv on it. It was for his son. That was very special.
It’s been five years now. I guess scars left by those who leave us too soon can never be fully healed, but I do hope there will be some moments of silence in the arenas where pucks are dropped for the first World Cup exhibition games this afternoon. The events in Yaroslavl not only devastated the entire global hockey community, I think it also brought out some of it’s finer qualities. Class, sportsmanship, perseverance and solidarity.
As we commemorate the men who died that day, it feels good to know that 10-year old Herman Liv is out there on a rink somewhere, playing hockey with his dad close by.
/Peter Sibner, CEO, Elite Prospects