The plane was carrying the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team of the Kontinental Hockey League to its season opener in Minsk, Belarus.
Russian officials said there are just two survivors – a flight engineer and 26-year-old winger Alexander Galimov. Both are in critical condition at a local hospital with severe burns.
Among those confirmed dead are three former members of the Florida Panthers: Defensemen Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins and Alexander Karpovtsev. Salei had reportedly called the team in Minsk for extra tickets to Thursday's game for family and friends. The 35-year-old was from Minsk.
“This is a horrible day for hockey,” Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. “Our hearts just go out to their families.”
Russian officials said 45 people were aboard the Yak-42 airliner – 37 players, coaches and staff as well as eight flight crew members. Those who died include former Red Wings assistant coach and 16-year NHL veteran Brad McCrimmon and three-time NHL All-Star Pavol Demitra.
The plane crashed on the banks of the Volga River after failing to gain altitude on takeoff. Yaroslavl is about 150 miles northeast of Moscow. One report quoted witnesses saying rescuers were pulling bodies off the plane, still strapped into their seats. Part of the plane ended up in the river with the tail of the plane resting in pieces along the bank.
"We have no team anymore," team spokesman Vladimir Malkov told The New York Times. "All our starting players, and all the service people, they all burned in the crash."
International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel was quoted on the KHL website as saying Wednesday was “the darkest day in the history of our sport. This is not only a Russian tragedy, the Lokomotiv roster included players and coaches from ten nations.”
Wednesday’s crash is one of the worst in sports history and is reminiscent of the Nov. 14, 1970 crash that involved the Marshall University football team and claimed 75 lives.
"Though it occurred thousands of miles away from our home arenas,'' NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement, “this tragedy represents a catastrophic loss to the hockey world – including the NHL family, which lost so many fathers, sons, teammates and friends who at one time excelled in our league. Our deepest condolences go to the families and loved ones of all who perished.”
Salei and Skrastins did not play together with the Panthers, although their paths did cross. Salei, who played in 147 games with the Panthers over parts of two seasons, was traded to Colorado in February 2008. The Panthers got Skrastins in return.
Skrastins, 36, spent part of two seasons with the Panthers, playing in 97 games for Florida before leaving for Dallas in 2009. Skrastins played for the Dallas Stars last season; Salei was with the Red Wings.
Former Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun declined comment on the crash when approached by reporters in Washington, D.C., saying he had just lost his best friend. Vokoun, now with the Capitals, was close with both Skrastins and Salei.
The Panthers are still reeling from the death of former teammate Wade Belak, who played in parts of two seasons with the Panthers. He was found dead in Toronto. Belak reportedly took his own life.
“This is just unbelievable. This whole summer,’’ said Panthers center Stephen Weiss, who played with Salei, Skrastins, Karpovtsev and Belak.
“It was hard to hear that news this morning. Just another sick feeling. It was pretty somber on the ice. It was tough to go out there. We had teammates on that plane. You just feel sick for their families. As athletes, we fly a lot and it gets scary up there sometimes. To see this is terrifying. This is just terrible.”
The Panthers held an informal preseason skate at their training facility in Coral Springs on Wednesday, with players being informed of the crash before taking the ice. Russian players Dmitry Kulikov and Evgeny Dadonov took the news hard but participated in the full workout.
Kulikov played for Lokomotiv before leaving Russia to play junior hockey in Canada. Kulikov slipped to the Panthers with the 14th overall pick in the 2009 draft because he had a contract with the KHL club that some teams didn’t think he could get out of.
Kulikov was able to buy his way out of the contract and he started with Florida as an 18-year-old later that season. Had he not been able to finagle his way out of the deal, Kulikov may have been playing for Locomotiv this season.
“This is just a terrible, terrible feeling,” Kulikov said. “I was friends with a lot of those guys, played for that team. Words can’t describe how I feel right now. It’s tough. To know people there, and know what happened, it’s tough. It’s just an empty feeling. You know things like this happen, but you never think it’s going to happen to your friends.”
NHL Players in Crash
C Pavol Demitra, 35; Ottawa, St. Louis, Minnesota, Los Angeles, Vancouver
D Alexander Karpovtsev (asst. coach), 41; Rangers, Toronto, Chicago, Islanders, Panthers
C Igor Korolev (asst. coach), 41; St. Louis, Winnipeg, Phoenix, Toronto, Chicago
D Brad McCrimmon (head coach), 52; Boston, Philadelphia, Calgary, Detroit, Hartford, Phoenix
D Karel Rachunek, 32; Ottawa, Rangers, New Jersey
D Ruslan Salei, 35; Anaheim, Florida, Colorado, Detroit
D Karlis Skrastins, 36; Nashville, Colorado, Florida, Dallas
C Josef Vasicek, 30; Carolina, Nashville, Islanders
LW Alexander Vasyunov, 23; New Jersey