Sports mourns losses on the track and in the air

By Fred Lief

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 30 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

The images were of fire and smoke, of wreckage from terrifying, high-speed crashes.

Everyone wanted an explanation. There were only investigations and heartbreak — from Las Vegas to the Volga River.

Dan Wheldon, months after winning an improbable second title at the Indianapolis 500, died at 33 in an incendiary scene of carnage in the desert in the closing race of the IndyCar season.

The hockey club Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, one of the best in Russia and featuring former NHL players, plunged into a river bank soon after takeoff as it was about to begin a new season. All 37 players, coaches and staff died.

Sports lost a roster of greats in 2011: Joe Frazier in boxing, Duke Snider and Harmon Killebrew in baseball, Al Davis in football. Golf's Seve Ballesteros and the marathon's Grete Waitz never made it out of their 50s.

But the deaths of Wheldon and the entire Lokomotiv team — athletes on the job and in the primes — stood out as both sudden and shocking.

Wheldon was one of racing's most popular drivers, an Englishman whose success never quite registered at home. And even though he already had won Indy in 2005, he had trouble getting rides this season because sponsors were hard to come by.

But there he was at the Brickyard in May, sailing to victory out of nowhere, the beneficiary of a rookie mistake by JR Hildebrand with one lap left.

"You never know what's going to happen," Wheldon said.

Less than five months later, his wisdom played out in the most chilling way possible.

Wheldon was well behind the leaders at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but moving up. In an eye blink, he was caught in mayhem that would engulf nearly half the 34-car field. His car soared into the air and careened into a post in the fence surrounding the track.

The 19 cars that escaped that day later rode five laps in tribute. By year's end, IndyCar said no one single factor was responsible for the accident, calling it a "perfect storm" of events.

"We put so much pressure on ourselves to win races and championships, and that's what we love to do," said Dario Franchitti, a former teammate. "Days like today, it doesn't really matter."

The Lokomotiv team was on its way to Minsk for its opener in the Kontinental Hockey League, the world's best after the NHL. But before the chartered jet reached full altitude, it smashed alongside a river and burst into flames. It was one of the worst air disasters in sports history. Investigators later cited lax oversight and insufficient crew training.

The players may not have been household names in Europe or North America. But those who know hockey can speak of Pavol Demitra, a Slovakian and three-time NHL All-Star; assistant coach Alexander Karpovtsev, who spent a dozen years in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994; goaltender Stefan Liv, who won an Olympic gold medal with Sweden in 2006; Ruslan Salei, a defenseman from Belarus who played with four NHL teams; Josef Vasicek, a Czech who was with the Carolina Hurricanes when they were Stanley Cup champs in 2006; and Brad McCrimmon, Lokomotiv's 52-year-old Canadian coach who played in the NHL from 1979 to 1997.

The memorial drew some 100,000 people, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

"For the first time in my life I had trouble entering an ice arena," said Vyacheslav Fetisov, the former NHL star and now the KHL chairman. "It's an inexplicable tragedy."

The crash also put a spotlight on the fear of travel across all sports — teams forever in flight and heading to the next game, crossing time zones and oceans in all sorts of conditions and all sorts of aircraft. The basketball community at Oklahoma State needs no lessons on this.

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