TUNOSHNA, Russia -- A private Russian jet carrying a top ice hockey team slammed into a riverbank moments after takeoff Wednesday, killing at least 43 people in one of the worst plane crashes ever involving a sports team.
Both Russia and the world of hockey were left stunned by the deaths of so many international stars in one catastrophic event. Two other people on board were critically injured.
The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the Yak-42 plane crashed into the shores of the Volga River immediately after leaving the airport near the western city of Yaroslavl, 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Moscow. The weather was sunny and clear at the time. Russian media said the plane struggled to gain altitude and then crashed into a signal tower, shattering into pieces.
Russian television showed a flaming fragment of the plane in the river as divers worked feverishly to recover bodies.
The plane was carrying the Lokomotiv ice hockey team from Yaroslavl to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where the team was to play Thursday against Dinamo Minsk in the opening game of the season for the Kontinental Hockey League. The ministry said it had 45 people on board, including 37 passengers and eight crew.
The Emergency Ministry said Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek, Swedish goalie Stefan Liv, Latvian defenseman Karlis Skrastins and defenseman Ruslan Salehi of Belarus were among those killed. Slovakian national team captain Pavol Demitra, who played in the NHL for the St. Louis Blues and the Vancouver Canucks, was also among the dead, officials said.
Former NHL vetaran Brad McCrimmon, Lokomotiv's head coach, was also killed in the crash. He was a teammate of current Spokane Chiefs head coach Don Nachbaur with the Philadelphia Flyers from 1985-87.
"Though it occurred thousands of miles away from our home arenas, this tragedy represents a catastrophic loss to the hockey world — including the NHL family, which lost so many fathers, sons, teammates and friends who at one time excelled in our League," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
Russian NHL star Alex Ovechkin tweeted: "I'm in shock!!!!!R.I.P ..."
Officials said Russian player Alexander Galimov survived the crash along with a crewmember.
"Their state of health is very grave. But there is still some hope," said Alexander Degyatryov, chief doctor at Yaroslavl's Solovyov Hospital.
The crash comes on top of an already mournful year for the NHL in which three of the league's enforcers were found dead: Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and recently retired Wade Belak.
The cause of the crash was not immediately apparent, but Russian news agencies cited unnamed local officials as saying it may have been caused by technical problems.