December 5, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 39°F


The Unthinkable

For my next post on this blog, I was going to wait a day or two and then write a bit about the recent college sports scandals and their relevance for Ithaca College. That can wait now.

Early Wednesday EDT , a plane carrying several players and coaches for the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team of the Kontinental Hockey League crashed shortly after takeoff, killing 43 people and seriously wounding the only two people to survive the crash, a young player for the team and a member of the flight crew. The team was traveling to a game in Belarus on an old, shoddy private jet banned from use in most of Europe because it’s considered so unsafe.

I know a lot of people here don’t really follow ice hockey too closely and even hockey nuts like me don’t exactly stay up all night to watch Russian hockey games. But even so, an awful lot of great players and coaches died in this crash. So far the list of casualties includes

  • Alexander Vasyunov, who I remember being fairly impressed by a few years ago when the NHL team he played for at the time, the New Jersey Devils, faced my favorite team, the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Pavol Demitra,a two time All-Star who scored over 300 goals during his NHL career.
  • Karlis Skrastins, Karel Rachunek, Ruslan Salei and Josef Vasicek, four NHL journeymen who were never even remotely close to being considered stars of the game but who were all still quite dependable to any team who signed them. Vasicek was also the brother of the sister-in-law of Sabres star Thomas Vanek.
  • Brad McCrimmon, an NHL veteran and former assistant who had just taken over as coach of the team.
  • And finally two of the players who helped Russia win gold at last winter’s World Junior Championships in my hometown of Buffalo.

These were all good players, not superstars to be sure but still pretty skilled at their jobs. And what makes the whole tragedy even more surreal is that while we’re more or less used to a couple well-known athletes dying suddenly in a while, you just don’t see entire teams suddenly die all that much. Marshall University’s football team and the University of Evansville’s basketball team suffered similar tragedies in the 1970’s, as did Oklahoma State basketball in 2001.

A little less recently, the U.S. women’s figure skating team, the British soccer team Manchester United and the Uruguayan rugby team all were devastated by plane crashes as well (the Uruguayan survivors even had to resort to cannibalism).

But for the most part, plane crashes are extremely rare in sports, which is really amazing if you think about it. We live in a world where international sporting competitions and leagues at both the college and professional levels with multiple time zones are the norm. Many of the athletes we cheer on, maybe even most of the athletes we cheer on board these planes almost every day for more than half of the year. It’s almost a miracle that tragedies like the one that just happened don’t occur more often than they do.

This hasn’t been a cheerful summer for hockey players either. In the past few months, three NHL players have been found dead: Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. Certainly makes you think twice about wishing death on a team or a player you don’t like. Or at least it should.