Tragedy struck in 2011, but Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL had success on the ice this season. (Photo Agency KHL/AP)

Tragedy struck in 2011, but Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL had success on the ice this season. (Photo Agency KHL/AP)

On Sept. 7, 2011, a plane crash killed nearly the entire Russian pro hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. The team was on its way to Minsk for the first game of the season when its plane went down shortly after takeoff. All but two players were on board, along with coaches, staff and four members of a youth team.

Among the victims were nine former NHL players, including Brad McCrimmon, who was about to make his debut as the team’s head coach.

The Kontinental Hockey League granted Lokomotiv Yaroslavl a one-year hiatus. Now, the team is wrapping up its first season back on the ice.

Tal Pinchevsky, a staff writer at NHL.com and the author of Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL—The Untold Story of Hockey’s Great Escapes, joined Bill Littlefield to discuss the team’s season.

BL: A partially-rebuilt Lokomotiv Yaroslavl played in a lower-level league for part of last season and then they resumed play in the KHL in September, right before the first anniversary of the crash. It must have been a very emotional return.

TP: It was very emotional. They had an exhibition schedule leading up the anniversary and just based on the conversations I had with players and coaches it sounded like it was very emotional and it kind of culminated in their first home game in Yaroslavl since the accident and it sounded like that was just an overwhelming experience for the whole team and the city really.

BL: How has the season gone for this team after basically half a year off playing in a minor league?

TP: It’s actually gone remarkably well. In my opinion it’s probably one of the great under-reported stories in sports this year that they’ve gotten off to a great start with a team made up of a number of their junior players plus a variety of free agents that they came in including a number of former NHL players.  And they got off to a tremendous start and actually finished fourth in their conference, in the Western Conference, and they’re currently in their first-round playoff series, and they’ve performed tremendously well. I mean this was a team that didn’t have any real stars on it, they were not really all that well represented at the All-Star Game, they didn’t have any players in the top 50 or so in league scoring, so they’ve been doing it as a team.

BL: Several Americans have played a key role in the team’s rebuilding, including head coach Tom Rowe, who played for the Washington Capitals and the Detroit Red Wings. How much help has the organization received from the NHL?

TP: Well there isn’t a ton of interaction, generally, between the NHL and KHL. They’re two separate entities really. Obviously the NHL has voiced their support for the club since they’ve tried to come back and I guess reinvent themselves and bring some sort of closure back to the city. But obviously during the lockout as with many KHL teams, there were a couple of NHL players who went over to play for Lokomotiv who then returned when the NHL season started, but that’s kind of the extent of the interaction between the two leagues.

BL: I wonder if the NHL players who ended up on that particular team were aware of the kind of added pressure and emotional burden that they were operating under.

TP: Oh, I’m sure, the two players were Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche and Artem Anisimov  of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Neither player’s really commented that much publicly on the experience since the NHL season has started. But it would be impossible to go over to play for that club and not understand the gravity of it, knowing that you’re not just playing for the team and for the city, but also just to honor the spirit of the 44 people who died tragically in that plane crash.

BL: Lokomotiv won its playoff game on Thursday, though they’re behind, 3-2, in that quarterfinal series.  How much further do they have to go for their fans to consider this to be a successful comeback, assuming they don’t already consider it a successful comeback?

TP: I think the general spirit from what I’ve seen and heard is that the comeback is already successful. This is a team that, that did win a lot of games, that showed a tremendous amount of unity and toughness doing it so the way this team has come together and brought some measure of peace, I guess as much as it can really, to Yaroslavl, that’s a victory in itself.