Fleming: "We just have to survive ... physically and emotionally"
The puck drops again for Avangard Omsk on Monday. But the team will hit the ice with a void in its lineup and an even bigger hole in the players' hearts.
The Russian hockey team will play its first game since Monday's tragic death, during a league game, of rising star Alexei Cherepanov. It will be the first of eight games in 14 days for a team still dealing with the shocking loss of the New York Rangers prospect.
"We just have to survive the next two weeks physically and emotionally," Omsk coach Wayne Fleming told ESPN.com on Saturday. "And that's a big part of paying tribute to Alexei Cherepanov and to the city of Omsk."
Fleming reflected on the events of the past week, something he has never been part of before in his long history in hockey.
"The biggest thing is the magnitude of this young man and how he affected so many people," said Fleming, a longtime NHL assistant coach and former Canadian national team head coach. "He was almost like the chosen one, and certainly the favorite son of this city. It wasn't just his talent on the ice, but also how he conducted himself as a fine young man."
The Russian league is in the middle of an investigation of Cherepanov's death, and Igor Larionov, who helped found the KHL and sits on the league's board of directors, told ESPN.com on Saturday that an emergency board meeting has been called for Tuesday, as officials will seek out more answers.
A Russian lawmaker said last week that Cherepanov may have died because of negligence on the part of paramedics who responded to an emergency call. There are also conflicting explanations behind the cause of the player's death. While federal investigators said last week the cause was still unclear, Moscow regional officials stated Cherepanov apparently had chronic ischemia, a medical condition in which not enough blood gets to the heart or other organs.
Fleming's team was originally slated to play Saturday, but the KHL postponed the game. Saturday was a complete day off for Omsk after back-to-back practices Thursday and Friday.
"They hadn't really had a chance to be with their families and do what they needed to do privately," Fleming said. "Everyone was emotionally and physically exhausted."
The 19-year-old Cherepanov, an Omsk native, was laid to rest Wednesday, but not before a viewing at the arena that attracted some 60,000 mourners and "very few dry eyes," Fleming said.
"That was as emotional as anything I've ever seen," Fleming said.
The team was back on the ice Thursday for practice.
"I met with the team on the ice just prior to our practice on Thursday morning, which was kind of traumatic," said Fleming. "I only knew the young man 17 days, but he was that kind of individual that could leave the kind of an impression on you. So, we talked about how in North America, when we have a tragedy or someone is taken away, we always talk about cherishing the memory. I told them even though I've only known Alexei for a short period of time, this young guy will stay with me until I'm done.
"The best way we can respect and honor him is to carry on our lives and play the way he played, which was with great energy, great determination and a lot of fun."
Fleming said veteran superstar Jaromir Jagr has been strong throughout the ordeal.
"I have a lot of respect for this guy," Fleming said. "He's a top-notch, quality individual. When this came up, he took it very hard. He spent hours with this young man. He talked to him all the time, always had his arm around him, joking with him. He had a real tough time when this happened.
"I think [Jagr] was many times maybe misread in North America; he wasn't given enough credit for how strong a character person he is and how much caring he has. I have the utmost respect for him."
Jagr left the NHL in July and came to Russia because it was the best contract offer on the table. Now, he's playing for something entirely different. So are all of his teammates.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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