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motiv.” All over the arena was the familiar acronym “pzd.” On the scoreboard, ad after ad:
“Russian Railways: We're making our future.”
But then the past took center stage. Players from both teams—Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and
the visiting Magnitigorsk Metallurg (this team, sponsored by Russia's steel industry, makes
a Pittsburgh Steelers fan like me proud)—began skating around the ice as the arena fell
silent. This quiet “skate” took place at the beginning of every Lokomotiv home game, to
honor the fallen team. Then a ballad began to play, and images of the dead players flashed
across the Jumbotron with a message: “The team that will always be in our hearts.”
. . .
T HE CIRCUMSTANCES surrounding that 2011 plane crash remain murky. The season was just
beginning, and Lokomotiv was ready to fly out of town for its first game of the season.
Shortly after take-off in Yaroslavl, the plane went down, killing all but one aboard. Offi-
cially pilot error was blamed. But the timing was odd. There was an international economic
summit taking place in the city, and Russian prime minister (now president) Vladimir Putin
was in town. Many local residents refuse to believe that his presence was not somehow re-
lated. Was Putin actually the target of a terrorist plot that somehow went awry? Did Putin
actually order the crash to bring the nation together after a tragedy, just as he was running
to become president again? These seem like far-fetched conspiracy theories, but they do
point to the deep suspicions many Russians have about their leadership—and in particular,
More than twenty thousand fans were silent during the emotional tribute. Then came the
cue that it was okay to start cheering. A loud train whistle blasted in the arena, and the new
Lokomotiv team took the ice, to the delight of their wild fans. The game was close and
intense, as fans urged the hometown team on, yelling, “ Shaibu! Shaibu! ” which translates
literally as “Puck! Puck!” but translates among hockey devotees as “Goal! Goal!”
Lokomotiv lost in the end, but that may have been because they had already clinched a
spot in the upcoming playoffs and weren't playing their hardest.
After the game Sergei and I caught up with Dima, who agreed to chat for a few minutes
before going to meet his girlfriend—who, it turns out, was one of the cheerleaders dancing
near our seats. Dima, Sergei, and I stood near one of the concession stands as fans streamed
out of the arena behind us. He explained that the plane crash was especially hard for him,
since he knew all the players. “I trained with them. I grew up and lived with them.” He
dismissed all the theories about how the crash was anything but an accident. “Only God
decided that something like that would happen.” Dima spoke quietly, thinking about every
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