It's been almost 11 months since the tragic plane crash that took the lives of the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team. On Wednesday, they returned to action in the KHL as Lokomotiv lost 4-1 to Alexander Radulov's CSKA Moscow club in a preseason game, but it was just the beginnings of a memorable upcoming season for the club.
It was planned as a low-key affair, with little pre-publicity to lure sports fans away from the Olympic coverage on a sweltering evening, there was still an impressive crowd to welcome head coach Tom Rowe's new-look roster to "The Loko Family".
More than 100 Loko fans gathered outside the arena after the game to greet their new heroes prior to the team's training camp in Switzerland, and spirits were hardly dampened by CSKA's 4-1 win in a gentle pre-season warm-up.
The way a youthful Loko contested the first period backed up Rowe's claim that he found "14 or 15 youngsters who can play" when he came to the organization in the summer — and his willingness to give them game time highlights the importance that the club places on maintaining some continuity with the players who brought hockey back to the city in the aftermath of last September's tragedy.
Due to the tragedy, the team did not play in the KHL last season, instead fielding a team in the MHL, a minor league.
The re-building of Lokomotiv has been a process. In April, they hired Tom Rowe, formerly with the Carolina Hurricanes, to be their new head coach. They've also been able to sign former NHLers such as Niklas Hagman, Viktor Kozlov, Curtis Sanford, and Sami Lepisto, among others, to fill out their roster.
Alexei Kalyuzhni, who spent the last two seasons with Avangard Omsk, said about a "mystical fear" of joining the team, "I know what you're talking about. It was the main thing that made me think. But I lost a very close friend in that crash — Ruslan Salei. That's why I had personal reasons to be involved in the revival of Lokomotiv… It is impossible to replace someone who died. But you can try to do something on the team that, perhaps, he wanted to do himself."
As they prepared for the 2012-13 season, Lokomotiv was offered certain guarantees. "We were offered a guaranteed playoff spot," Yuri Lukin, the team GM told SovSport. "But Lokomotiv doesn't need any concessions. We put together a team that is capable of challenging for the Gagarin Cup."
Lokomotiv will begin regular season play Sept. 6 at Sibir, one day before the first anniversary of the plane crash.
Additional information provided by Dmitry Chesnokov
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy