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Russian hockey team members die in plane crash

An airplane carrying members of a Russian hockey team crashed Wednesday shortly after taking off, killing at least 43 people, including a number of former NHL players.

According to the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry, a Yak-42 plane crashed just after taking off from an airport near the city of Yaroslavl on the Volga River. A total of 45 people were on board, including 37 passengers and eight crew members.

The Kontinental Hockey League confirmed on its website that the aircraft was carrying players and staff of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club. The team was flying to Minsk, Belarus, to open the season Thursday against Dinamo Minsk.

According to the KHL, newly-appointed head coach Brad McCrimmon, a former NHL defenseman and assistant coach, was among those killed, as were recent NHL players Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, Karel Rachunek, Josef Vasicek, Karlis Skrastins and Alexander Vasyunov.

"Though it occurred thousands of miles away from our home arenas, 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," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement. "Our deepest condolences go to the families and loved ones of all who perished."

Rt.com, an English-speaking Russian news outlet, reported that two people survived the crash. One, according to the report, was a crew member and the other was team member Aleksandr Galimov. Both were hospitalized with severe burns.

Reports indicate the plane failed to gain height after leaving the runway and collided with a navigation beacon before crashing about two kilometers from the airport.

The Slovakian Hockey Federation confirmed the death of Demitra, who last played in the NHL with the Canucks during the 2009-10 season. He also played for St. Louis, Los Angeles, Ottawa and Minnesota.

"It is with great sadness that we learn of the sudden passing of Pavol Demitra and his colleagues of the Lokomotiv hockey club today," said the Canucks in a statement. "Pavol was dedicated and passionate about his young family and the game of hockey. Pavol was a valued teammate and member of our organization and will be sorely missed."

Salei, a native of Belarus, was selected by Anaheim with the ninth overall pick of the 1996 draft and spent most of his NHL career with the Ducks. He also played for Florida, Colorado and Detroit, appearing in 75 games last season for the Red Wings.

Rachunek played for the Senators, Rangers and Devils, while fellow Czech Vasicek was a member of the Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 during an NHL career that also included time with the Predators and Islanders.

"We are deeply saddened to learn of today's tragedy in Russia," said Hurricanes president and general manager Jim Rutherford in a statement. "Josef was a key part of the Hurricanes for six years, helping us achieve some of our greatest successes. More importantly, he was a great teammate on and off the ice, and was respected as a person as well as a player."

The Latvian-born Skrastins played for Nashville, Colorado, Florida and Dallas, most recently appearing in 74 games for the Stars this past season.

Vasyunov, a 23-year-old native of Yaroslavl, went back to play for his home team to gain experience before a likely return to the NHL with the New Jersey Devils. He played in 18 games for New Jersey last season.

"Nothing could prepare the hockey community for the devastating news it received today," said Devils CEO Lou Lamoriello in a statement. "I had the pleasure of knowing several members of the team, plus the entire coaching staff. In particular, Alexander Vasyunov, who played for us last season, was an outstanding young man and a gifted athlete.

"Captain Karel Rachunek skated for us in 2007-08. Both were members of the Devils family. On behalf of the entire Devils organization, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of the entire Lokomotiv club."

McCrimmon was a standout NHL defenseman with Boston, Philadelphia, Calgary, Detroit, Hartford and Phoenix from 1979-97. He won a Stanley Cup with the Flames in 1989 and spent time as a coach in the NHL with the Islanders, Flames, Thrashers and Red Wings before taking the Lokomotiv job in May.

The KHL was opening its season on Wednesday in Ufa, but that game was canceled during the first period when news of the tragedy broke.

"First and foremost, our condolences go out to the families of the players, coaches and staff lost in today's tragedy," the league said in a statement. "We know that there are many in the KHL family who will be grieving with us.

"As the investigation of this tragedy progresses we will work closely with investigators, government officials, club executives and the Yaroslavl community. We are working to find an appropriate way to honor this club and begin the healing process from the deep loss so many of us feel today."

The KHL said the league will continue, although a decision regarding the future of the Yaroslavl club will be determined at a later date.

Wednesday's disaster is the latest in a number of sports-related plane crashes.

The most notable in the United States was the November 14, 1970, crash that killed 75 people, including most of the Marshall University football team, as well as coaches, staff, family, fans, university officials and crew.