Cherepanov collapses on bench during game, dies of apparent heart attack

Updated: October 14, 2008, 2:09 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

The shocking death of promising young New York Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov at the end of a Continental Hockey League game Monday in Russia is both a tragic loss for the hockey world and a cautionary tale about the uncertainty of an evolving entity such as the KHL.

Alexei Cherepanov
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAlexei Cherepanov, the top-ranked European player in the 2007 draft, was the Rangers' first-round pick that year.

Cherepanov, a gifted forward who was playing with Avangard Omsk of the KHL, returned to the bench near the end of a game Monday night and collapsed.

"He passed out on the bench and they couldn't revive him," coach Wayne Fleming told ESPN.com in an interview Monday night.

Cherepanov, 19, the 17th overall pick in the 2007 entry draft, was sitting between former Rangers star Jaromir Jagr and forward Pavel Rosa on the bench during a game against Vityav Chekov on the outskirts of Moscow when he suffered an apparent heart attack.

"He just laid back, passed out and went kind of white," Fleming said.

He said a team of doctors tried to revive Cherepanov but couldn't. Cherepanov was taken to a local hospital, where further attempts to revive him failed.

When asked about the availability of a defibrillator or whether medical equipment that might have helped Cherepanov was in working order, Fleming said he had been asked not to comment by team officials.

Fleming said he would meet with team management in the morning to determine the next course of action vis-à-vis whether there would be an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Cherepanov's death.

Another report suggested the ambulance usually stationed at the arena had left and had to be called back, delaying Cherepanov's transport to the hospital. That report could not be independently verified.

In the NHL, every arena is equipped with numerous preventive measures aimed at avoiding such an outcome.

Each NHL team undergoes an annual audit to ensure it is in compliance with a range of emergency medical procedures that must be in place in every building, deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com Monday.

Among the requirements are that medical staff on hand must be certified in advanced trauma life support. There is also a requirement for ambulance service on site.

Cherepanov's agent, Jay Grossman, said he'd heard the same reports of problems with medical equipment and with ambulance availability but said he didn't know the details for sure. If there were problems, they need to be addressed, he said. But Grossman also said this wasn't the time to be painting the Russian experience with the brush of this tragedy.

Grossman said he had spoken with one of Cherepanov's former teammates in Russia, Anton Babchuk, who is now in Carolina, about the medical standards employed by the team. Babchuk told Grossman the blood testing and use of EKGs "was very comparable to what's being done over here," Grossman said.

The ability of teams to respond to medical emergencies was brought into sharp focus in November 2005 when Detroit Red Wings defenseman Jiri Fischer went into cardiac arrest on the bench in Detroit.

The NHL also reviewed its procedures after Florida Panthers forward Richard Zednik suffered a potentially deadly neck injury during a game in Buffalo in February when he was cut by a teammate's skate.

Fleming, a former assistant with the Calgary Flames and with Canada's Olympic team, joined Avangard Omsk as the head coach earlier this month. He said the team was waiting to return home to Omsk with Cherepanov's body.

The skilled forward was from the Omsk area. His parents are still in the area and were informed of the tragedy by team management, Fleming said.

"I saw him more as a person than a player," Fleming said. "He was a great, great player, but he had the character of a special person.

"He was just a really upbeat person. Very respectful of his teammates and all of the staff. We're going to miss him in Russia, and they're going to miss him in the NHL," the coach said.

Grossman said he thought Cherepanov had "an inner confidence."

"I don't think he was a cocky kid," the agent told ESPN.com Monday night. "I just think he was a real dedicated kid and I think he was an enormously talented player.

"He was the kind of kid that if he gave you his word, he would honor it," he said

There was a time when Cherepanov was considered one of the top prospects of his draft class. But uncertainty over the lack of a transfer agreement between the Russian ice hockey federation and the International Ice Hockey Federation and the potential for young Russian players to eschew coming to the NHL to stay for big money in Russia saw Cherepanov slip in the 2007 draft.

That the Rangers ended up with him with the 17th overall pick seemed like a steal.

"He had a very intricate game," Gordie Clark, director of player personnel for the Rangers, told ESPN.com Monday.

In the months leading up to the draft, Cherepanov played well on the world stage.

"He scored big goals in big tournaments to win games," Clark said. "There were times that maybe he'd go missing a little bit. But if you needed a big goal scored, he did it.

"He was a very fun-loving kid. He always seemed like he was having fun and joking around," Clark said.

The day after he was drafted, Cherepanov attended a Rangers prospect camp. He had to get all new equipment and skates because he hadn't brought any with him to the draft in Columbus.

At the time, Cherepanov told the Rangers he had every intention of improving and joining the Rangers.

"He said his dream was to play in the best league in the world, which is the NHL," Clark said.

As recently as November 2007, Cherepanov told Rangers officials at an international tournament that he was still hoping to become an NHLer.

"His eyes always lit up when he saw you around," Clark said.

Cherepanov did not attend the Rangers' training camp this fall because the KHL starts its schedule early. He was being projected as a possible NHLer next season. In the meantime, he seemed happy playing for his hometown team in the new KHL.

Cherepanov was the top-ranked European skater heading into the 2007 draft and had more points in his first year in the Russian league than Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk. His 18 goals in 2006-07 broke Pavel Bure's RSL rookie scoring record.

"He was close to a complete package," Goran Stubb, NHL director of European scouting, told NHL.com. "Very fast skater. He was a goal-scorer and a passer.

"I think he could have been a big spectator favorite because he was that kind of player. Sometimes you could hardly notice him, but on one shift, he could do unbelievable things with the puck -- passing, shooting, skating, extremely skillful. A finesse player with a capital 'F,'" Stubb said.

Cherepanov had seven goals and five assists in 14 games with Avangard Omsk this season. In 106 career games with Avangard Omsk, he had 40 goals and 29 assists, as well as 61 penalty minutes. In the 2008 Under-20 World Junior Championships, he led Russia to a bronze medal.

"The NHLPA is saddened to learn of the passing of Alexei Cherepanov," NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly said in a statement. "Alexei was a tremendous young man and a highly-skilled hockey player whose promising career had no limits. His unexpected passing at such a young age is a great loss for the entire hockey community.

"The NHLPA extends our condolences to Alexei's family, friends and teammates during this extremely difficult time," Kelly said.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.