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Thousands of Latvians mourn death of former NHL player Karlis Skrastins

Dallas Stars defenseman Karlis Skrastins, of Latvia, warms up before facing the Colorado Avalanche in an NHL hockey game in Denver, in this Dec. 26, 2009 file photo.Thousands of Latvians are congregating in the country's main sports arena to pay final respects to hockey legend Skrastins, who died last week in a plane crash in Russia that annihilated an entire team. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

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Dallas Stars defenseman Karlis Skrastins, of Latvia, warms up before facing the Colorado Avalanche in an NHL hockey game in Denver, in this Dec. 26, 2009 file photo.Thousands of Latvians are congregating in the country's main sports arena to pay final respects to hockey legend Skrastins, who died last week in a plane crash in Russia that annihilated an entire team. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

RIGA, Latvia - About 20,000 Latvians said farewell Friday to former NHL player and hockey player Karlis Skrastins, who died last week in a plane crash in Russia that wiped out an entire team.

Many mourners held roses and wore crimson-and-white Latvian hockey jerseys, paying homage to Skrastins at the country's main sport arena just outside of downtown Riga, the country's capital. President Andris Berzins also took part in the memorial.

Skrastins, who played for several NHL teams, including the Colorado Avalanche and Nashville Predators, is regarded as one of the greatest Latvian players in a country where hockey is by far the most popular sport.

While in the NHL, Skrastins, 37, was regarded as one of the most dependable players, setting a record for most consecutive games played by a defenceman—495, the equivalent of nearly seven seasons.

He was among 37 players, coaches and staff of Russia's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club who died when their jet crashed outside Yaroslavl en route to their first game of the season.

Zane Skrasina, his widow, expressed bitterness about the tragedy. "This is not the first time in Russia a plane has fallen or a submarine has sunk," she told the weekly Ir magazine. "Nothing will change in the Russian system after this accident."

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