For years, a season-opening visit to the local church has been a cherished tradition for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. It held even greater meaning this season after the plane crash that took the lives of many of the team's players, coaches and support staff on Sept. 7, 2011.
The visit was just part of a week's worth of tributes for the team and its coach, who following an emotional return to Yaroslavl now has a winning KHL squad fresh off its first home victory.
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"It's a real good group. They're willing to do things to win games. Probably one of the more enjoyable group of guys I've coached, to be honest with you," coach Tom Rowe told NHL.com the day after his first Lokomotiv home win. "We had a really good road trip at the beginning of the season. We went to the Siberian region, which isn't an easy place to go, from what they told me."
Rowe heard right.
His club started its regular season with a 5-2 win in Novosibirsk, an Eastern Russian city located about 600 miles from the Mongolian border and 2,115 miles from Moscow. That was followed by a 2-1 victory in Khabarovsk, less than 20 miles from the Chinese border. Through the extreme road trip, Rowe had his team keep its watches on Moscow time, a tough task considering the eight-hour time difference.
By the time Lokomotiv finished the three-game trip with two regulation wins and a shootout victory, good for eight of a possible nine points, their much-anticipated home opener was on the horizon. Before that special day, the team made a somber visit to the church in Yaroslavl as well as to the cemetery where a number of last year's crash victims are buried.
"Everybody had flowers. That was probably the most emotional part of the week leading up to opening night," Rowe said. "It was such an emotional week leading up to that."
Along with a video tribute, the arena ceremony included the introduction of a new tradition that will now open every Lokomotiv home game. Before the puck drop, a large bell will descend from the rafters and ring three times to honor that fallen Yaroslavl club.
Lokomotiv opened the scoring in their Sept. 16 home opener with Daniil Apalkov's goal late in the first period. But after a scoreless second, Atlant Moscow Ablast took back momentum, scoring twice in the third to win 2-1.
"It's human nature that it's going to have an effect emotionally and physically," Rowe said. "Everybody knew so many people on that plane, like [assistant and former Yaroslavl junior coach] Nikolai Borschevsky. He coached maybe six or seven of those kids. It was pretty tough on him, I think. You can only imagine the emotions that everybody went through."
The team appeared to be back in form for its next home game, Sept. 21 against Spartak Moscow. Down 1-0, Alexei Kalyuzhny tied the game for Lokomotiv with 14 seconds remaining in the opening period. It was the first of four unanswered goals for the team, which cruised to a 4-2 win, its first in Yaroslavl since the crash.
The day after, Rowe was looking forward to continuing to build his team into a winner, all while honoring the group that preceded his. It's a team he's learning more about as the season goes on.
"Just talking with people around the arena that knew the players when they were growing up in this system, they spoke more about how good they were as people," said Rowe, who along with captain Viktor Kozlov addressed the team before the opener. "We said, 'Let's celebrate the team and make sure that we continue what they started.'"