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A Russian journalist weighs in on the Yaroslavl tragedy

One of the many signs that hockey's an international game is the number of journalists from different countries you run into covering the NHL.

There are all kinds of Finns, Swedes, Russians and Czechs sprinkled in the major cities, covering their athletes.

One who I've gotten to know a little bit over the past few years is Slava Malamud, who writes for the Russian daily Sport-Express and is based in the Washington area. In light of the tragic events in Yaroslavl yesterday, I touched base with him this morning to talk about the crash from a Russian perspective and what this means for hockey in his country.

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Q. This story has obviously made international news, but can you quantify how much of an impact it has made in Russia?

SM: Obviously it's huge. Our newspaper had to take apart everything yesterday. All of the media that have nothing to do with sports have dedicated a lot of time to it. It's all over TV, radio. Unfortunately tragedy is something that Russians sort of become desensitized to, but this type of thing really strikes home for people because hockey's so popular.

These guys were household names. Yaroslavl is a huge hockey town. It's like Russia's Buffalo. Everybody loves hockey. It's one of the few cities where hockey's bigger than soccer. It's just devastating to the city.

Q. Can you talk a little bit more about Yaroslavl and hockey's place there?

SM: It's a very old city. It's one of those ancient Russian cities with a lot of history, going back to the 10th or 11th century. It's a little more than half a million people and is the capital of the Yaroslavl region in central Russia.

It's a big railroad centre - that's why the team is named Lokomotiv, it's sponsored by the Russian railroad.

It's a famous city, famous for its architecture, famous for its history. And hockey's huge. The team has a long history - they won a couple championships before the KHL, and the team is a really big part of the community there. They are the team in the city.

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The whole city is just completely devastated. These guys are the biggest stars in the city. It's very difficult to find a city in Russia where hockey's more popular than soccer, but when it is, it's big. They just live with their hockey teams. Yaroslavl is one of those teams.

Buffalo or Edmonton or Calgary - any of those cities that are crazy about hockey, that's the kind of equivalent. It's not a huge city, so they see these guys on the street everywhere, know all of them, talk to them and get autographs. They're part of the community.

Q. A lot of people in North America are talking about the quality of flights in Russia - is that justified? What's your experience?

SM: They're still investigating so you can't really say with any degree of certainty [what happened]..

Air safety is always an issue in Russia, and they have a pretty poor record in that regard. It's a huge issue there. Now, with this kind of problem, that's probably going to create awareness about it big time.

Q. Will this scare players away from playing in the KHL? Will Canadian and American players become afraid to play there?

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SM: Right now, this very second, a lot of them are thinking that. If I was in the position, where my son was going to play in the KHL, I'd probably hold them [down]- I wouldn't let them do it right now. But the emotions are still very high... I think when things settle down, people will realize you can die in a plane crash anywhere in the world. This is a risk you take.

And now, hopefully, the KHL definitely is addressing it big time. They have already said they will be handling all of the team's travel centrally from their office. They're not going to allow teams to charter their own airlines and their own planes. They'll probably go with Russia's biggest and safest company, Aeroflot.

Things will get tightened up. It's unlikely for something like this to happen twice in the same league. But right now, yes, right now people are scared.

In Russia you always think about terrorism, you think about plane crashes, train crashes, boats sinking. There's lots of tragedy in Russia happening due to old equipment, old machinery, Soviet relics still being operational. It is a problem, nobody denies it, but I think the KHL has enough resources to deal with it.

Q. They're talking about rebuilding the roster of the team - what's your take on how that process will go?

SM: It's a good bet that at least several top quality players will wind up there. One player that I think right away they'll get is Alexei Yashin. He used to play for them, he doesn't have a contract right now. I think he was waiting for midseason when somebody would sign him in the NHL or KHL. But for him right now to go there would be an appreciated gesture... he was a huge star there.

Denis Grebeshkov, another big star in Russia, played for a couple NHL teams, he has already said to Sport-Express that he wants to come back [to his hometown]and that this is something he feels he must do.

Whether it's going to be left up to the players, or individual teams or will Lokomotiv choose, who knows? All that's left of Lokomotiv right now is the team president and the new head coach and a goalie coach. Nobody else is left.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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