Pavol Demitra last played in the NHL for the Canucks, but scored 61 points in 54 games for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl last season. (Getty Images)
I was driving down the highway alone Wednesday night with a thought I could not shake. In the wake of the Yaroslavl plane crash, there was already news that a Lokomotiv team would be reborn, possibly with minor leaguers or juniors. As time has passed, it seems more evident the other franchises in the Kontinental League will donate players to make sure that team takes to the ice.
At any rate, I couldn’t get that emotional knot out of my body. The idea that in the near future players would don that red and blue sweater was equally haunting and beautiful. The notion there are KHL players who’ve volunteered to leave their own teams, the cities they call home, in order to pick up the mantle for fallen friends or former teammates was overwhelming.
The fact there will be a perpetual monument to those who lost their lives in this disaster is something sport uniquely provides for these horrific situations. Whoever becomes the new flag-bearer for Lokomotiv will be pulling on a jersey that features the threads of those who perished. It becomes an everlasting tribute to the humble leadership of Pavol Demitra, the wry humor of Ruslan Salei, the happy-go-lucky nature of Stefan Liv.
The jersey becomes a testament to the dreams of Brad McCrimmon, who believed he could prove his worth as a head coach with NHL aspirations by leaving the cozy confines of the Detroit Red Wings to strike out on his own in a land far away. It becomes a reminder that two young members of the team, Daniil Sobchenko and Yuri Urychev, helped a largely unknown group of Russians do the impossible by coming from behind in three consecutive elimination games at the 2011 World Junior Championship to win the gold medal over archrival Canada, pumping five goals past the stunned Canucks in the third period.
I think about the players who will wear that Yaroslavl jersey. I can only imagine what that first home game will be like when it happens. Actually, I’d have to guess every road game will also be an emotional, tear-filled whirlwind for all involved. And if Alexander Galimov, the only player to survive the crash, should emerge from the hospital and rehabilitate from the serious wounds and injuries he sustained in the wreckage to play hockey once again, it will be an unforgettable sight. Everyone becomes a Lokomotiv fan.
Though I’ve never been a fan of Disney endings, I already find myself playing scenes of a remarkable run to the Gagarin Cup in my head, knowing how much it would mean. It is not a failure if the team doesn’t live up to those lofty dreams; every game played by Lokomotiv is a victory this season. Each time Yaroslavl scores a goal or preserves a win through a great save, we will smile and cheer, because we know what it means.
We live for the dead. We take up their torches and march on, because we know that a simple twist of fate could have given us their destinies instead. Every time we see that jersey, that logo with the speeding train, we are reminded of the dozens on that flight who did nothing to bring on their own demise, but were taken away from us nonetheless.
New players will be brought in to wear the sweater with pride and they will be heroes to us all.