The name Lokomotiv Yaroslavl evokes a lot of emotions for hockey fans. It's a name synonymous with tragedy, as a Sept. 2011 plane crash took the lives of the entire team roster and coaching staff, forcing the franchise to miss that KHL season. It's also a name synonymous with the underdog spirit, as the team reformed and became a consistent playoff contender the last three seasons.
This postseason, they were an underdog again, both in opponent and with some late-season adversity.
When he replaced Pyotr Vorobyov as Lokomotiv head coach with four games to go in the KHL regular season, Dave King didn’t have much time to fulfill his orders. His new team was hanging on to the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference. They won all four games and next found themselves facing a monumental hill to climb: Overcoming two-time defending champion Dynamo Moscow in the first round.
The series didn’t start well, as Lokomotiv quickly found themselves in an 0-2 hole. Then came the comeback that evened the series, after a dramatic 3-2 overtime win in Game 4.
After dropping Game 5 1-0 in overtime, Lokomotiv made sure the Dynamo wouldn’t be staging a come back and took the final two games of the series 6-0 and 5-1.
Dynamo had won the NHL equivalent of the Presidents’ Trophy after finishing with 115 points. Now they were bounced in the first round by a no. 8 seed.
In February, King took a leave of absence from the Phoenix Coyotes, where he’s the team’s developmental coach, to return to Russia. He was the first Canadian to step behind the bench in the country when he took the reins of Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 2005-06. Now he was inserted very late in the season after Vorobyov resigned due to health reasons and he was taking a job with a friend in mind.
“All of us in the hockey world have an attachment to this team because of what they went through,” he told the Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek shortly after joining Lokomotiv. “The plane accident makes it a special organization and it is a long recovery process from that. We have a young team, a good group and a great organization, so that made it intriguing to me.”
King shares another attachment with Lokomotiv: Brad McCrimmon, who died in the 2011 plane crash, months after taking the job.
McCrimmon’s father and King played together with the Rosewell Red Wings growing up. When McCrimmon was contemplating taking the Lokomotiv job in 2011, he consulted with King, who co-authored a book with Duhatschek about his experience coaching in Russia.
After the stunning upset of Dynamo, the next obstacle in Lokomotiv’s way was SKA St. Petersburg, a club whose free-spending ways have yet to result in a Russian league championship in their 68-year existence.
Their most recent high-profile move was the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk last season. This year, they finished second in the West behind Dynamo and scored 175 goals, second-most in the KHL.
(To give you an idea of comparison for SKA, think of the New York Rangers of the late 1990s/early-2000s. Picture Glen Sather with an open checkbook and no salary cap ceiling to stay under. Think Bobby Holik’s 5-year, $45 million contract. It’s that kind of free-wheeling spending going on.)
The series bounced back-and-forth between the teams and in Game 5 Lokomotiv held off SKA by a 3-2 score, setting up a chance to move on to the conference final with one more win.
The rich, offensive-heavy SKA went broke in Game 6 on Friday and Vitaly Vishnevsky’s goal with 9:28 left to give Lokomotiv a 2-0 lead sealed their fate and started the celebrations.
Almost three years after the tragic plane crash that killed 44 people, including the entire team, Lokomotiv has rebuilt themselves and risen from the depths of that dark day in hockey.
NBC aired a documentary on Lokomotiv's rebirth in February showing just how the lasting memory of those lost in the plane crash still inspire the players and community of Yaroslavl today.
The hockey world has taken on Lokomotiv as a second favorite team since that day in September 2011. The story may not end like a fairytale, but the journey has certainly felt like one.
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