The last time the Bryant Gumbel-hosted "Real Sports" on HBO turned its attention to hockey, it was under the pall of death back in October — a fair, open-minded segment on the late Derek Boogaard and the debilitating effects of fighting.
On Tuesday night, a new Bernie Goldberg segment analyzes the other great hockey tragedy of 2011: The plane crash that killed the players and coaches of the KHL's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
It's an in-depth look at the tragedy, the scope of the tributes and the deplorable factors that led to the crash. But it builds to a stinging indictment of the KHL's negligence in this and other infamous incidents.
The pivot for the piece is former Anaheim Ducks and Detroit Red Wings defenseman Ruslan Salei, whose career is chronicled and whose widow provides the heart and soul of the segment. (Among the heart-wrenching revelations: Salei had cameras installed in his house to peek in on his children while he was on the road; they now hang unused in their home.)
Salei lost his life in the crash, and Goldberg goes through the story of an outdated Soviet plane with inexperienced pilots — one of whom applied the brakes while another accelerated.
This is well-trodden material for anyone that's followed the Lokomotiv tragedy; but for the casual sports magazine viewer, it's a stunner.
What the segment turns into, however, is an impeachment of the KHL. Like the fact that they were using these Soviet planes in the first place — flown by "cut rate" charters companies with "second rate" pilots. An anonymous (and one assumes Canadian, by the accent) KHL player describes how even his Russian teammates were nervous about flights. Former KHL coach Barry Smith discusses how he used to be able to pick up and move his chair inside the plane.
A stunning statistic is shared: The Soviet planes make up only 3 percent of the world's air fleet, but accounted for 43-percent of the world's crashes.
Then Goldberg goes for the jugular with the KHL: Covering the death of Alexei Cherepanov in 2008, the horrifically unprepared medical response and the fact that KHL doctors administer banned substances to players. Yes, we see the video of the New York Rangers draft pick being carried off the bench without a stretcher.
All of this hits in the final minutes of the segment, like HBO turned on the valve for a sewage line. To the uninitiated, it's shocking stuff.
(Although is does make one hunger for a full HBO investigation of the KHL, from the bags of money left for players to the criminal elements.)
Linking Cherepanov to the Lokomotiv crash might seem like cheap heat on the KHL, and that's how it struck me at first. But Goldberg's theme here is that the KHL cuts corners and is too slow to react to its tragedies, whether it's a player dying on the ice or in a plane. Within that context, it's fair game.
The fact that Salei's family, at the time of the segment's taping, hadn't seen a dime from the KHL as far as salary or death benefits just reinforces that.
"Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" premieres on HBO at 10 p.m. ET/9 p.m. CT on Tuesday night, and is available on HBO OnDemand. Give this one a look, if only to remember the magnitude of the tragedy.
Meanwhile, here's a great segment on hockey enforcers from over a decade ago on "Real Sports" in which Stu Grimson explains that Jesus Christ would have been a hockey fighter.