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Original Issue

The Air Over There

One year on from a Russian jet crash, players face the prospect of returning to the KHL

On Friday hockey fans will march in silence through the streets of Yaroslavl, Russia, in memory of the plane crash a year ago that killed every member of the Lokomotiv hockey team (above). The tragedy crossed borders, as 37 players and coaches from 10 countries died that day, including NHL alumni Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei and Brad McCrimmon, the team's coach.

One day before the fan memorial, Lokomitiv Yaroslavl will play its first game of the Kontinental Hockey League season. The team is coached by Tom Rowe, a former Hurricanes assistant, and reportedly includes a handful of former NHL players.

The opening of the NHL's own season is far from certain. The league's contract with its players is set to expire on Sept. 15, and neither side seems able to agree on how to divide revenue. Talks between the league and the players' association ended in a stalemate last week. "We both agreed that when either of us has something to say, we'll pick up the phone," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said of union head Donald Fehr.

With another work stoppage looming—the NHL lost the entire 2004--05 season to a lockout—players may once again turn their eyes across the Atlantic. Eight years ago many players joined European leagues, including the cash-rich KHL. Considering the Russian airline industry's checkered past, however, some in the NHL said they did not feel safe when flying in the country.

Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, who played for Metallurg Magnitogorsk from 2003 to '06, has said he would return to the KHL club in the event of a canceled season. He speculated last week that teammate Sidney Crosby would also consider playing abroad.

But Malkin concedes that "North American players won't go to Europe until the very last moment.... A lot of them are a bit afraid of Russia. But the best hockey league in the world after the NHL is here."