October 15, 2008
The death of Alexei Cherepanov continues to spark conversation around the hockey world, but there was no more compelling conversation than the one that occurred between Eric Duhatschek of the Globe & Mail and Wayne Fleming, who coached the promising young New York Rangers prospect on Avangard Omsk. Fleming's harrowing recollection of the tragedy:
"It was towards the end of the third period; he'd just played a shift. Another line was just going over the boards when all of a sudden, Jaromir Jagr, started yelling. I looked to my left and Cherepanov had just collapsed back. He lost all colour. The doctor was at the far end of the bench. He came running down, as did the trainer. Everybody moved down to the far end, to give them some room.
"Then, they took him off the bench. There was an exit door about 20 yards away and they just lay him there. When the game was over, I went out and Jagr went out; he was on the ground and there were a number of what looked like medical attendants working on him, trying to get his heart going again. They would get it going; and then it would stop again.
"When they finally did get him to hospital, they had him on life support - but then they lost him."
This eyewitness account of Cherepanov's last moments is also a must-read, if your stomach can take it. We've also now heard from Jagr, who said the initial report about a collision between himself and Cherepanov was made up by "some Russian journalist" who "wanted draw readers and put the name Jagr in the headline."
Jeff Z. Klein of the New York Times posted this news report on the memorials for Cherepanov. It's Russian-language, but the powerful images destroy that barrier:
As with any tragedy, the media has gone from "who?" to "how?" to "why?" The details of this young player's death are now evidence in a case of negligence against the KHL. And the ferocity and haste in that case-building iagainst the fledgling league is rather regrettable.
Pierre McGuire of TSN was one of the first MSM analysts to speak out against the medical care Cherepanov did not receive during his health crisis, based on what he saw on a YouTube video:
"It shows you how far behind the times the Russians are when it comes to medical assistance," McGuire said. "When you see him on the bench, there is no medical support there. There is no stretcher. And you see the players carrying him off like a bag of potatoes.
"If players want to utilize the Continental league as a negotiation tool against the NHL, they should take a look at the YouTube video. It's frightening."
What's frightening, actually, is that general application of a single tragedy to an entire league, and basing it on an amateur video.
In all of our coverage of the KHL this summer, the issues of poor medical care or lapse athletic training either never came up or were obscured by the larger issues of player poaching and the new Red Scare. Steve Zipay of Newsday, in two conversations with Rangers officials, was able to find anecdotal evidence that Russian medical care was in fact quite adequate in emergency situations.
There's no question the KHL and the NHL should investigate the hell out of the factors behind Cherepanov's death - which were diagnosed as chronic ischemia, but are now questioned by the doctor who saved Jiri Fisher's life -- and the apparent negligence of the KHL and the arena medical staff.
But McGuire's "negotiation tool" comment and other KHL critics who are using this death as affirmation of the Russian league's inferiority are being irresponsible.
Sometimes, after a tragedy, you can rightfully slam the failure of the immediate response: Katrina, for example. In other cases, the unthinkable happens and you judge how an individual or an organization changes its procedures to prevent it from happening again. It doesn't excuse the initial blunders; but for McGuire to claim the KHL is somehow invalidated as an option for professional players because of this tragedy is complete hyperbole.
Quite frankly, it's like an NHL critic claiming fans should think twice about ever attending another game after Brittanie Cecil died in 2002, without allowing the NHL the opportunity to improve fan safety.
As Stephen Knight of Slam! Sports said, "The KHL has the big salary part down; now they appear to have some work to do on the player safety part." Absolutely.
As Bob McKenzie reports, the Cherepanov tragedy has gotten the attention of prominent Russian hockey officials like Igor Larionov, and thus will be the catalyst for that change in safety:
Larionov has said the Kontinental Hockey League must respond to this crisis and ensure it never happens again, or at least the league should take steps to ensure every arena is better equipped to deal with emergencies of this nature.
If you've read us for the last few months, you know that we don't consider the KHL to be a monster threat to the NHL; frankly, its recent "run and hide" behavior in the Alexander Radulov affair has been embarrassing. We're not exactly huge fans for the league coming off the blocks.
The KHL's response was inadequate. But this was a sudden tragedy. It deserves an opportunity to improve it.