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Semyon Varlamov never said anything about it before. Maybe because it was nobody else’s business, more likely because it was just too painful to talk about. It’s been more than seven years since the worst tragedy ever to hit professional hockey, when, on Sept. 7, 2011, the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team of the KHL, along with coaches and other staff, was killed when their team plane crashed shortly after takeoff on the banks of the Volga River in the Russian city of Yaroslavl.
The plane was en route for the two-hour flight to Minsk, where Lokomotiv, a 52-year-old franchise, was scheduled to play the season-opener of the 2011-12 KHL season. The 18-year-old Yakovlev Yak-42 chartered aircraft struck at tower upon liftoff and plunged to the riverbank.
Among those whose lives were taken were two former Avalanche players – defensemen Ruslan Salei and Karlis Skrastins. Of the 45 on board, 44 died. A flight engineer was the sole survivor. Varlamov, the Avalanche goalie, played for Lokomotiv before joining the Washington Capitals in 2008.
In the summer of 2011, Varlamov’s contract with the Capitals had run out, and talks toward a new one had stalled. What Varlamov has never publicly acknowledged, until now, is he was very seriously considering signing a contract with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. If the Avalanche had not done what it did – acquiring him via trade not long after plans were in motion to sign with Lokomotiv – Varlamov likely would have been on that doomed plane.
“There was a definite possibility I was going to sign with Yaroslavl,” Varlamov told BSN Denver. “It was the summertime of 2011, and we could not (agree) on an extension with Washington. I was just kind of hanging out. I thought I might have a chance to go back and play (in Yaroslavl).”
Avalanche general manager Greg Sherman, knowing Varlamov was available, engineered a trade on July 1 that sent Washington first- and second-round picks. Four months later, the team Varlamov grew up cheering, then playing, for was taken in what remains the worst airline disaster in pro hockey.
“I still cannot believe this happened. It’s still very tough to think about,” Varlamov told BSN Denver.
Varlamov played 33 games for Lokomotiv in the 2006-07 season, on a team that included six players who would perish in the 2011 crash.
“I was very close to all of them. That’s my hometown team,” Varlamov said. “I knew everybody, the players, the staff, everybody. Lots of the players, we grew up together. It was a tragedy not just for the hockey world, but for everybody. When I went back for the funerals, I spent three days there. In Yaroslavl, I’ve never seen the city so emotional. I felt like the entire city just cried. It’s all about hockey in that town, you know? They lost their whole team. The people were just in shock. It was just a very hard time. I’m sure, for the parents and their friends, it’s still really hard to believe this happened.”
Varlamov is not the only Avalanche goalie to have a close brush with fate involving an airplane. On Sept. 2, 1998, Avalanche prospect goalie David Aebischer flew a Swissair plane from Geneva to JFK Airport in New York to get ready for hockey season. That same plane, on the return flight back to Geneva, burst into flames because of faulty maintenance and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 229 aboard.
“I really thought a lot about it for a couple of days,” Aebischer told The Denver Post at the time. “You couldn’t forget something like that. But, after that, I tried to not think about it, and I don’t that much anymore.”
During the 2012-13 lockout that limited the NHL to 48 games, Varlamov did return to play for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, playing 16 games. During that time, he flew Russian-made planes and acknowledged some worry about being on them.
“Sometimes I (did), because I know how old they are,” Varlamov said. “Some companies are still using the old planes, it’s not a secret. That’s why, if you are in Russia, you always try to fly Aeroflot (Airlines). It’s the best Russian company. They have brand new planes. Some teams fly Aeroflot planes. But some don’t.”
With seven years having passed, the tragedy doesn’t occupy Varlamov’s thoughts as much as they did in that first season with the Avs. It can’t. Being a pro athlete means having to have immense focus on the job at hand. But thoughts of Yaroslavl are never far away.
“You have to live your life,” he said. “You can’t let one thing control the rest of your life. But I think of my friends very often, and you never forget.”