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A man lights candles in front of Arena-2000, the home venue of the Russian ice hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslav in Yaroslavl early on Sept. 8, 2011 after the team was involved in an air crash. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images/Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)
A man lights candles in front of Arena-2000, the home venue of the Russian ice hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslav in Yaroslavl early on Sept. 8, 2011 after the team was involved in an air crash. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images/Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

Roy MacGregor

The 'darkest day' in hockey's annus horribilis Add to ...

It didn’t strike his players as particularly odd when the inscrutable Fred Shero scribbled 28 words on the dressing-room blackboard in the mid-1970s, the coach wanting only to fire up his Philadelphia Flyers for what would be a successful run at the Stanley Cup.

To them, it was just “The Fog,” as they called him, being himself.

“Hockey,” Shero wrote, “is where we live, where we can best meet and overcome pain and wrong and death. Life is just a place where we spend time between games.”

But it sure feels odd today.

Life and its inseparable partner death have taken on new meaning for hockey in these weeks between seasons, let alone between games. And on Wednesday, when news came that a plane had gone down in Russia with an entire Kontinental Hockey League team aboard, it seemed there was nowhere to be found, inside or outside a rink, where it was possible to “meet and overcome pain and wrong and death.”

Chicago Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews, the last Canadian captain to raise the Stanley Cup, called this “the worst summer ever for hockey.”

But much, much more than summer. Nine months into the calendar year, 2011 has seen a hideous stretch launched New Year’s Day when Sidney Crosby, the game’s greatest player, was clipped in the head during the Winter Classic. It includes the deaths of three National Hockey League enforcers – Derek Boogaard in late spring, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak in late summer – from various causes that seem more than coincidentally linked to the stresses of what fellow former enforcer Georges Laraque has called “the toughest job in the world.”

Wednesday’s plane crash that killed all but one member of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl – including Saskatchewan’s Brad McCrimmon, a popular former NHL player and coach of the Lokomotiv – sent more shock waves through an already shaken hockey world. René Fasel, the head of the International Ice Hockey Federation, called it “the darkest day in the history of our sport.”

Since hockey has become such an international game, with players often moving between the North American professional leagues and the European, many of the Lokomotiv players lost were familiar to North American fans. Several had known great popularity in Canada, including Russian Igor Korolev, once a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Slovakian Pavol Demitra, a fan favourite as a rookie with the Ottawa Senators and again as a veteran with the Vancouver Canucks.

Canadians will not soon forget Demitra’s spirited play in the 2010 Winter Games, when but for an inch or so in the final moments he would have put the seemingly possessed Slovaks into overtime against a collapsing and panicking Team Canada.

There were 43 deaths in total, including coaches and team officials, with two people surviving but badly injured. The team was flying to Minsk, where Lokomotiv was to open the season Thursday against Dynamo. Shortly after takeoff, however, Lokomotiv was no more. “First we did not want to believe,” said team spokesman Vladimir Malkov. “But now there is no hope.”

The late Canadian poet Al Purdy once said there was “only a hyphen between me and death,” but such stark realization is a difficult fit with sport. Play, after all, is the opposite of reality, and professional sport, which grew out of harmless play, has forever been regarded as a welcome escape from the harsh realities of life.

Not lately, though. Fred Shero’s definition of life as merely a holding pattern between games doesn’t hold. Death has claimed its own space between games.

In an unfortunate coincidence, news of the magnitude of the Lokomotiv tragedy was spreading just as Sidney Crosby and his doctors were about to hold a news conference in Pittsburgh to discuss the Penguin captain’s progress in his long recovery from postconcussion syndrome.

While no one would dare equate “90-per-cent” functionality with no function at all, Crosby’s nine-month-and-counting absence from the game he is the face and future of is a major concern for hockey. An inability to return would be a disaster both for the National Hockey League and for future enrolment in minor hockey.

Crosby, fortunately for both the professional game and the child’s game, says he will return when fully recovered and dismisses the chances of not coming back this season as “slight.” However confident that sounds, it will not be until Crosby actually does return, and performs at his previous elite level, that the game’s jittery nerves will be somewhat calmed.

While some thought that Crosby might have cancelled his news conference in deference to the Russian tragedy, the fact that he went ahead with it on such a dark day produced the first light the game has seen in weeks when he called for a complete ban on hits to the head. As he put it, “I don’t think there’s a reason not to take them out.”

Such a statement obviously has no relevance to air safety in Russia, but given the recent tragedies involving the troubled enforcers, Crosby’s call for NHL action could conceivably lead to lives being saved in the future.

All this has had the effect of making fans see sport as something other than mere distraction and something that, to those who play the games, is in fact life itself.

Scottish football coach Bill Shankly once ridiculed those who saw games as matters of life and death. “I can assure you,” Shankly said, “it is much, much more important than that.”

Great quote, only he got it backward, as has become all too evident in the a nnus horribilis of hockey.

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Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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