Deadly Plane Crash May Persuade Hockey Players to Avoid Russia, Agents Say

The Kontinental Hockey League could be less attractive to players now in North America after a plane crash this week that killed most of the squad of three-time Russian champion Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, sports agents said.

Travel safety will be an issue for players considering joining the KHL, which has become a rival to the National Hockey League. Only two of the 45 people on Lokomotiv’s plane survived the crash about 300 kilometers (185 miles) northwest of Moscow two days ago. The coach, Canadian Brad McCrimmon, and ex-NHL players Pavol Demitra and Ruslan Salei were among the dead.

The Soviet-era plane had been in service for more than 30 years and was operated by a charter provider. In the U.S., most pro sports teams and many top-level colleges travel to and from games on charter flights on commercial carriers, such as United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL) and Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL), the world’s two largest carriers.

“We have to find out what are they using for air travel before we sign off with a specific team,” Lewis Gross, a New Jersey-based agent with Sports Professional Management Inc., said in a telephone interview.

Yak Service, the operator of the flight that crashed, was put under review by European Union regulators in 2009 for possible inclusion on a blacklist after Russia restricted it at home. The European Commission didn’t ban the operator after Russia lifted its own measures.

Foreign Planes

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev yesterday said the country may turn to foreign aircraft producers to ensure safe air travel. The number of air accidents in the first seven months increased 60 percent to 24 and the number of fatalities rose nine-fold to 72, Federal Statistics Service data show.

Still, there’s no way to get around air travel in sports, especially in a large country such as Russia or the U.S., agents said. Delta may charge $12,000 for a regional charter jet on a short U.S. route, Bill Wernecke, who runs the airline’s charter service, said during an interview in January. A sports team’s typical spending is $1 million to $3 million a season, he said.

“It always has been and always will be if you want to be a professional athlete,” Toronto-based agent Ian Pulver said of the necessity of air travel in a telephone interview. “These are risks that everyone takes, including myself, entertainers, businessmen.”

The 24-team KHL started in 2008 and has lured players such as Jaromir Jagr, the ninth-leading scorer in NHL history, with big-money contracts. It also affords players from European countries a chance to be seen by NHL scouts.

‘Window to NHL’

“KHL holds very high-level hockey and is a good window to the NHL,” Juuso Pulliainen, a Finland-based agent who represents 10 current KHL players, said in an e-mail.

One of those who died in the crash had prior concern for his safety. Jan Marek, a 32-year-old player, said in an interview two years ago with Czech newspaper Lidove Noviny that he was scared to fly in Russia.

“I feel it’s getting worse,” Marek said in comments republished yesterday by the newspaper. “I would rather ride a bus to Moscow for three days. I won’t take any pills but I may try shots of vodka.”

Gross said several players he represents get offers every season to play in the KHL. Last year, current Edmonton Oilers goalie Yann Denis and former New York Islanders defenseman Brett Skinner played with the KHL’s Amur Khabarovsk club.

While Gross said he doesn’t think the crash will change the way players view the opportunity to play in Russia, especially if they are being offered more money than they could make in the NHL, it will change how agents evaluate the playing options for their clients.

‘Due Diligence’

“They always tell you that they charter and they have great travel, but it’s not something that I think many agents looked into in terms of confirming it,” he said. “That will now be part of our due diligence.”

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl joins England’s Manchester United soccer club and the Marshall University football team as sports teams affected by accidents.

United’s plane crashed taking off from a refueling stop in Munich on a trip back from a 5-4 victory over Red Star Belgrade in February 1958. Twenty-two people were killed, including seven players, and another player died of his injuries 15 days later.

Seventy-five people were killed in November 1970 as a plane carrying Marshall’s football team crashed while attempting to land in Huntington, West Virginia. Most of the team, the coaching staff, flight crew and supporters were killed.

To contact the reporters on this story: Bob Bensch in London at bbensch@bloomberg.net and Michael Buteau in Atlanta 1320 or mbuteau@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Elser at celser@bloomberg.net.

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