The old coach had been there, flown that. When Brad McCrimmon called Dave King last summer six, seven times to ask about the challenges of coaching in Russia—McCrimmon, the former Red Wings assistant, was leaving for his first job as a head coach in pro hockey—King, a former NHL coach who had spent the 2006--07 season in Magnitogorsk, always came back to the travel. The money is green, but the knuckles are white.
Following the Sept. 7 crash of the charter carrying Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to its season opener in the Belarus capital of Minsk that killed 37 team personnel, including the 52-year-old McCrimmon, Russia's Kontinental Hockey League does not have an image problem as much as it has a dying problem. Maybe the untimely passing in 2008 of 19-year-old Alexei Cherepanov, a first-round draft choice of the Rangers, could be stored deep in the collective memory of prospective KHLers as a freakish one-off—Cherepanov collapsed on the bench and died of a chronic heart condition; the battery in a nearby defibrillator had been drained—but a Russian air disaster is practically a standing headline. There have been eight fatal accidents (seven crashes and one fire on the tarmac) in Russia in 2011, six since June. According to the Aviation Safety Network, at least 119 people have died, making Russia the world leader in this dubious category. In the 24-team KHL, which has 20 Russian-based franchises spread over eight time zones, the players are always up in the air.
This is a classic weight and balance issue. You weigh the generous salaries in the second-best hockey league in the world—the money is better than in other European leagues, the minors and, for some players, even the NHL—and balance them against the lack of amenities and the knowledge that Russian aviation does not have an upright-and-locked tradition. For almost three months last summer Yak Service, the company that operated the Yaroslavl plane, was banned from flying in EU airspace because of safety concerns.
As investigators continued to unravel the cause of last week's crash—which took the lives of, among others, Pavol Demitra, a three-time 35-plus goal scorer with the Blues, and Ruslan Salei, a 15-year NHL defenseman—and president Dmitry Medvedev ordered the shutdown of unreliable Russian airline companies, questions arose about the age of the plane. The doomed Yak-42 had been built in 1993. According to Paul Richfield, a pilot and 30-year aviation-industry veteran, age, in this case, is a red herring. An 18-year-old airplane is basically middle-aged. The Yak-42, developed in 1977 to cope with short airfields and rough runways, might be noisy and dirty by Western standards, but, Richfield stresses, "it's not a dog," even if Brad Richards swears he could hear it bark.
Richards, now a Rangers center, flew on Yak-42s after he joined Ak Bars Kazan during the 2004--05 NHL lockout. Sometimes seats on the plane would collapse forward, apparently for no reason. The Yaks did the job—I was a fellow traveler on some of those uncomfortable flights—but to Richards the plane seemed as archaic as a Sopwith Camel. "I just didn't feel safe," he said last week. "Speaking for myself, I'm sure [non-Russians] now will think twice [about playing in the KHL]. Why wouldn't they?"
"The guys who go over and come back, all they talk about are the planes," says Senators center Jason Spezza. "Rich teams. Poor teams. Doesn't matter."
The problems run deeper than equipment. Although five of the 57 Yak-42s in service were grounded after inspections last week, only eight crashes since 1982 have involved the model—and only four of those were a result of aircraft malfunction. Russia's endemic aviation woes are not so much in the hardware as in its post-Soviet airline industry's pinch-every-penny approach, including lax oversight, maintenance shortcuts and poor pilot training. "You think about every soccer team, hockey team ... they won't want to fly Russian charters anymore," says Detroit star Pavel Datsyuk of the situation in his home country. "The Russian league has to change something. They have to care about life, not about money."
But how many players will be able to resist the apparent charms of the KHL, which include a chance to play against highly skilled players and low taxation levels? The league attracts a melting pot of NHL stars at the end of their careers—including Alex Kovalev, 38, formerly of the Penguins, now with Atlant Moscow Oblast—middling Europeans and a smattering of North Americans. There were five Americans and 24 Canadians on KHL opening day rosters. And, as Datsyuk notes, the problem is bigger than hockey. Four players from the locked-out NBA, including Spurs forward DeJuan Blair, have recently signed with Russian teams.
Now that a prized franchise has fallen from the sky, Medvedev says drastic reforms are imminent. "The image of the league will be judged by how we address this crisis," says KHL VP Ilya Kochevrin. "As a result of our commitment to [preventing another tragedy], we're confident that players will not be deterred from choosing to play in the KHL in the future."
Money always talks, but this bird may have flown.
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
A study conducted by Ursinus College determined that the Bills were the NFL's most attractive team (and the Chiefs the least attractive), based on photographic analysis of players', coaches' and owners' facial-feature symmetry.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW
DENNY MEDLEY/US PRESSWIRE (BILLS)