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From the rubble of disaster: Lokomotiv picking up pieces after entire team was killed in a 2011 plane crash

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Russia's Lokomotiv Varoslavl hockey team continues to rebuild — far from home — after the devastating plane crash on Sept. 7, 2011 that killed 43 people including 36 players, coaches and staff.

MANHEIM, Pa. -- Alex Kruchinin can step out the front door of his hotel and see nothing across the street but miles of farmland. Just down the road that weaves through the quiet countryside, there are farms and silos and enough wide-open spaces that it's almost impossible for a bunch of young hockey prospects thousands of kilometres from home to fall into trouble.

In the heart of Amish country, Kruchinin is living through a sort of reverse rumspringa, confined to two-a-day training sessions, regimented meals and not much to do outside the occasional trip to a nearby outlet mall.

Fun, for the most part, is on hold, for now.

Plucked from Russia and plopped into southeastern Pennsylvania, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl's reinvention continues not on the banks of the Volga River, but inside a weight room where each day they train like world-class athletes. The makeshift team that lifted both the pieces of the franchise and spirit of a city following one of the worst aviation disasters in sports history has hunkered down for five weeks here for an introduction of western training into their regimen, trying to add the speed and strength necessary to win championships in the Kontinental Hockey League.

This is Lokomotiv 2.0. Rebuilt from tragedy, the next generation of players pushes on for several gruelling hours a day with one of sports' elite trainers.


Never far from their thoughts are the lost friends or former teammates -- their fallen comrades -- who were killed not long after boarding a chartered Yak-42 jet. Lokomotiv's plane crashed September 7, 2011 shortly after takeoff outside Yaroslavl, killing 44 people. All of its players, coaches and staff were wiped out, a catastrophic loss that evoked memories in the U.S. of the fatal Marshall University football team flight.

Lifting weights and forgoing favourite foods are small sacrifices for Lokomotiv.

"It's hard, but it's not a problem," the 22-year-old Kruchinin said. "Life is hard."

No team knows just how hard like Lokomotiv. Tom Rowe, a former NHL forward and Lokomotiv's American coach, was tasked with guiding the team through the aftermath of the accident and, somehow, into the playoffs. Each game was accessorized with teary tributes for the victims before they buried their feelings for 60 hard minutes of hockey still ahead.

"I wouldn't say we've moved past it. We don't ever want to forget that team," Rowe said. "But we need to take the next step."

The journey of moulding a group of undersized teens into rugged pros starts nearly 7,700 kilometres away just outside Lancaster.

Kruchinin arrived with eyes as wide as the city skyline when he landed in New York last month. His dream of training in the big city was dashed on the car ride to Pennsylvania, each kilometre moving him closer toward Green Acres than 30 Rock.

There's not much to do in Manheim. So they may as well work out at Power Train Sports Institute.

Led by Steve Saunders -- who's trained NFL stars such as James Harrison and Hollywood's Liam Hemsworth -- each player is on an individual workout plan and pushed to his limit, balancing everything from proper nutrition to suitable rest periods, all crafted to give them an edge next season and beyond.

"They're pleasers," Saunders said. "You can tell they're used to being coached heavily."

Overseeing it all from the bleachers for the first few weeks was Rowe, the first American-born player to score 30 or more goals in an NHL season.

Former NHL general manager Mike Smith, who voluntarily offered his services to Lokomotiv following the disaster, reached out to Rowe about taking over the team as it shifted back to the KHL following a one-year stint in the minors. Rowe trusted Smith and he enjoyed his interview with team president Yuri Yakovlev. He also knew if the situation was right for former coach Brad McCrimmon, killed in the crash, than it could work for him.

McCrimmon was survived by wife Maureen and children Carlin and Liam. Rowe exchanged emails with Maureen around the anniversary date to let her know how many people still cared for her.

All the Lokomotiv players knew someone on that plane. Kruchinin played on the national team with Daniil Sobchenko and Yuri Urychev.

"That's why I accepted the offer to come to the team," Kruchinin said. "They were my friends. It's hard, but we must be strong. We play for our team and we play for that team."

The disaster will never be forgotten by Lokomotiv. Before each game, two youth players wear the Lokomotiv jersey and hold the team flag as they skate a lap in silence. They join a third youth player, who tolls a bell three times in memoriam for the victims. Unlike a statue or a portrait that fans could breeze past, the tribute will remain a permanent part of Lokomotiv's pre-game, a solemn reminder of all that was lost.

Much like when tragedy strikes sports such as the Boston Marathon bombing in the United States, other cities rallied together in comfort during the aftermath. There were moments of silence at road games and Rowe said Lokomotiv received a standing ovation before every game, no matter how deep the rivalry.

"I don't think there's a person in the hockey world, or around the world, that didn't hear about what happened," Rowe said.

Inside the locker-room, the accident was rarely discussed.

With heavy hearts, Lokomotiv players dedicated the season to the victims and throughout the season visited graves of every player who perished.

"They all wanted to go and grieve at every cemetery and have their moment of silence with that particular player," Rowe said. "It was pretty special. As we'd get closer to the cemetery, things would get a little bit quieter. When we'd leave, it'd be fairly sombre. But it was a good way for everybody to bring closure to what happened and just pay their respects.

"Hockey players in general are a special breed. They're caring guys. They thought it was important. But they knew when it was time to play, they had to be focused."

And they had to win.

There was no grace period for Lokomotiv in a season where it served as a beacon of hope for a city of 600,000 people living about 260 kilometres northeast of Moscow. Yakovlev told Rowe he needed to accomplish two things in the first season back in the big leagues: win and develop young players.

"The pressure that comes with coaching this team is probably more pressure than a lot of teams in the KHL, maybe even some teams in the NHL," Rowe said.


Led by forward Sergei Plotnikov and centre Artem Anisimov (of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who played during the NHL lockout), Lokomotiv went on a nine-game winning streak over October and November. Lokomotiv, a three-time KHL champion, finished 34-18 and lost in the first round of the playoffs.


"Everybody understands how important it is for this team, the people, the city," Kruchinin said. "It's a big responsibility."

Winner of a Stanley Cup as an assistant with Carolina, the season abroad came with some bumps for Rowe.

"I was definitely considered soft in Russia," he said, laughing. "Part of my reputation over here was being too tough at times. Our president actually called me 'delicate' a couple of times. I'd never heard that before."

The criticism came because Rowe refused to scratch healthy players after a poor game and eliminated twice-daily practices.

But he did tell Yakovlev his roster of blossoming players needed to get bigger, faster, quicker. Saunders had trained NHL goalie Semyon Varlamov and that relationship led to a fortuitous chain through several people back to Lokomotiv. Yakovlev, a progressive-minded official, didn't balk at the high six-figure cost of sending 18 volunteers -- nine KHL players and nine more organizational prospects -- to the United States to train from April 20 to May 25.

Egor Yakolev, a 21-year-old defenceman, was the first player signed by the franchise after the crash. He's enjoyed the rare chance to improve his game in the States, even if there's not much scenery to chew.

"There's not a lot of fun," he said. "I go on the Internet."

It's not all power lifts and Google searches. Kruchinin's Twitter feed is dotted with pictures of players in the pool, chilling on a bench with dozens of Nike, Gap and DKNY bags at their feet, and a maze of roller-coasters at Hershey Park. They also attended a Philadelphia Flyers game. After the game, some players told Rowe they wanted to play for the Flyers.

He'd like them to bulk up like the old Broad Street Bullies.

Maybe at games, they can indulge on popcorn or sweet snacks. Saunders organized a daily 7:30 a.m. team breakfast, and they eat together for two other meals. He eliminated Russian staples like bread and heavy soups from their diet, even as the players protested for their favourites to return to the menu.

Not under Saunders' watch.

At times, they've been busted on the occasional fast break for fast food.

"I'm beeping on the horn, waving to them, so they know it's me that catches them," a laughing Saunders said.

He challenges his pupils to act like a rhinoceros -- see only what's ahead. He uses a language translator on his smartphone to aid communication.

For a team drained from funerals and a daily rehashing of the accident before lacing up the skates for each opening faceoff, focus hasn't been much of an issue.

But weeks of training and hotel boredom have started to exhaust the steel will of hockey players who surrendered all they know to temporarily bunk in the United States and toil long hours with Saunders.

"I don't think some days they're having a whole lot of fun," Rowe said. "I told them, 'I know you're tired, some days you probably don't want to be here, but don't forget, this is all part of your development.' "

Rowe, who plans to learn Russian, and his wife enjoyed their first year in their second home. He returned this week to Charleston, S.C., to refresh and reconnect with his family, including a son who scouts for the San Jose Sharks. His U.S. sabbatical is brief. Rowe returns to Yaroslavl on July 1 and prospects' camp is July 15-20. Training camp starts July 22 and the season opens Sept. 6.

They're counting on the unconventional training to fuel a season that could stretch deep into the post-season and give their fans -- really, a country -- one reason to feel good again about Lokomotiv.

"When we were playing, we played not only for ourselves," Yakolev said, "but for the guys. We want to do them proud, even here."


-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 C8

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