TUNOSHNA, Russia -- An off-season already rife with tragedy dealt another gut-wrenching blow to hockey's highest ranks Wednesday when a private jet slammed into a Russian riverbank, killing all but one member of a prominent pro hockey team -- including its Canadian coach.
In all, 43 people died, including 27 players of the well-known Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team and coach Brad McCrimmon, of Plenty, Sask., who took over the club in May. Nine other team officials and seven crew members were also killed.
McCrimmon, 52, was most recently an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings and played for years in the NHL for Calgary, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Hartford and Phoenix. He won a Stanley Cup in 1989 as a member of the Calgary Flames.
"This is the darkest day in the history of our sport," said René Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation.
"This is not only a Russian tragedy, the Lokomotiv roster included players and coaches from 10 nations. This is a terrible tragedy for the global ice hockey community with so many nationalities involved."
Russian NHL star Alex Ovechkin tweeted: "I'm in shock!!!!!R.I.P ..."
The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the Yak-42 plane crashed into the shores of the Volga River immediately after leaving the airport near the western city of Yaroslavl, 240 kilometres northeast of Moscow.
The weather was sunny and clear at the time. Russian media said the plane struggled to gain altitude and then crashed into a signal tower, shattering into pieces.
Russian television showed a flaming fragment of the plane in the river as divers worked feverishly to recover bodies.
"(He was) a guy who tried to hide his superb intellect and his great wit behind being a farmer from Saskatchewan," Flames president Ken King said of McCrimmon.
"He didn't do a very good job of hiding it because he was a real soldier, an awesome guy and I can't tell you how much he'll be missed."
The plane was carrying the team from Yaroslavl to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where they were to play today against Dynamo Minsk in the opening game of the Kontinental Hockey League season. It had 45 people on board, including 37 passengers and eight crew, the ministry said.
Officials said Russian player Alexander Galimov survived the crash along with a crew member.
"Their state of health is very grave. But there is still some hope," said Alexander Degyatryov, chief doctor at Yaroslavl's Solovyov Hospital.
Among the dead were Pavol Demitra, who played for the St. Louis Blues and the Vancouver Canucks and was the Slovakian national team captain. Also killed were Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek, Swedish goalie Stefan Liv, Latvian defenceman Karlis Skrastins and defenceman Ruslan Salei of Belarus, the Emergency Ministry said.
"Though it occurred thousands of miles away from our home arenas, this tragedy represents a catastrophic loss to the hockey world -- including the NHL family, which lost so many fathers, sons, teammates and friends," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
The crash comes on top of an already mournful year for the NHL in which three of the league's enforcers were found dead: Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and recently retired Wade Belak.
The cause of Wednesday's crash was not immediately apparent, but Russian news agencies cited unnamed local officials as saying it may have been due to technical problems. The plane was built in 1993 and belonged to a small Moscow-based Yak Service company.
Swarms of police and rescue crews rushed to Tunoshna, a ramshackle village with a blue-domed church on the banks of the Volga River, about 15 kilometres east of Yaroslavl. One of the plane's engines could be seen poking out of the river and a flotilla of boats combed the water for bodies. Divers struggled to heft the bodies of large, strong athletes in stretchers up the muddy, steep riverbank.
Resident Irina Prakhova saw the plane going down then heard a loud bang.
"It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong," said Prakhova. "I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on."
More than 2,000 mourning fans wearing jerseys and scarves and waving team flags gathered in the evening outside Lokomotiv's stadium in Yaroslavl to pay their respects. Riot police stood guard as fans chanted sport songs in honour of the dead athletes.
-- The Associated Press