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Starkey: Hockey mourns 'lost team'

| Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011

There's nothing to say, really. Words lose all meaning when a plane crash wipes out an entire hockey team. When dozens of families suddenly lose their fathers and sons. When the unthinkable happens.

So you do what you can do.

You try to help.

That is what people across the vast but tight-knit hockey world have been doing since Sept. 7, the day a Yak-42 jet carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club hit a signal tower, burst into flames and broke apart into the Volga River near Yaroslavl, Russia, ultimately killing 44 of 45 people on board.

What can anyone possibly say in the face of such random horror?

You do what you can do. So wives and girlfriends of NHL players created a website called . It sells silicone memory bracelets in honor of "the lost team," with proceeds going directly to the victims' families.

You do what you can do. So former NHL star Mark Howe and ex-teammate Brian Propp trudged over to the McCrimmon household in suburban Detroit after Howe's old defense partner, Brad McCrimmon — Lokomotiv's first-year coach — was memorialized. They sat until 1 in the morning with McCrimmon's widow and father.

You do what you can do. So the Penguins and Washington Capitals will wear Lokomotiv commemorative patches Thursday night. Their jerseys will then be autographed and auctioned off at for the families.

The tragedy hit particularly hard with Penguins star Evgeni Malkin. He knew most of the players and coaches for Lokomotiv, which played in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. One of the team's assistant coaches, Igor Korolev, was Malkin's teammate in Magnitogorsk during the NHL lockout. Korolev left a wife and two daughters.

So many were left behind.

"Husbands and fathers were lost," Malkin said in a quiet moment Wednesday at the Consol Energy Center. "Wives and mothers need help now. If we don't help, who helps?"

Shortly after the crash, Malkin went to Penguins general manager Ray Shero and expressed a desire to do something. Penguins officials helped Malkin tape a video message that was played on KHL scoreboards. Malkin's initiative also led to the jersey patches Thursday night in a game that features another Russian star in Alex Ovechkin.

It's important to Malkin that he and Ovechkin forge ahead as friends and ambassadors of Russian hockey. Once viewed as enemies, they bonded at the All-Star Game in Montreal in 2009 and have maintained a decent relationship.

"We're friends," Malkin said. "I see him in the summer. We talk."

It's amazing how the 44 victims touched so many lives. Travel the distance from red line to blue line and you are bound to encounter somebody with direct ties to a Lokomotiv team member.

In many cases, they are intimate, deep-rooted ties.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma used to carpool to practice with rugged defenseman Ruslan Salei when both played for Anaheim. They killed penalties and played cards together for four years.

Salei had three children under age 6.

"A unique teammate," Bylsma said. "He was inclusive of everyone. He also had a sharp tongue. Nobody was safe. I remember when we'd clear the puck on the penalty kill, he'd be chirping to the other team."

Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek was traveling from his native Czech Republic to Pittsburgh, switching flights in Toronto, when he learned of the news. Only four months earlier, he and Karel Rachunek had been defense partners on the Czech national team at the World Championships.

Now, Rachunek was gone. So was Jan Marek, another member of the Czech team and a close friend of Michalek's. The two hailed from Jindrichuv Hradec.

"I've known him since I was a little kid," Michalek said. "He was a big person in our small town. Everybody knows everybody there. The whole town was just crying when this happened. I'm still in shock."

During the Penguins game against Florida on Tuesday, the press box was lined with NHL scouts — and it was impossible to find one without a Lokomotiv connection.

Howe, chief pro scout for the Red Wings, long ago formed a devastating defense pair with McCrimmon in Philadelphia. They roomed together for 3.5 years.

Howe mentioned that McCrimmon's daughter, Carlin, has skipped this semester of college to help at home with her mother and 14-year-old brother, Liam. Dani Probert, widow of ex-NHLer Bob Probert, is one of many who come by to be with Maureen McCrimmon.

There's really nothing any of them can say. They just do what they can do.

They try to help.

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