March 16, 2012

AHL Journal: Lokomotiv victim Vasyunov sorely missed

By Dan Hickling

Has half a year really passed since the awful news out of Yaroslavl? 

Tyler Eckford (top) and Alexander Vasyunov grew close coming up together in the Devils' organization. (Photo by Dan Hickling)

An entire hockey team, Lokomotiv, wiped out in one horrific instant, innocent victims of a pilot's miscalculation. 

Some of them with names you knew: Brad “The Beast” McCrimmon. Pavol Demitra. Ruslan Salei.

Many more whose names you didn't: Maret Kalimulin. Pavel Snurnitsin. Yuri Urychev.

And one – left wing Alexander Vasyunov – whose name should have been known to AHL fans around New England.

Vasyunov, who was only 23 and in his first year with his hometown Yaroslavl squad, spent three years in the AHL, the first two with the lost and lamented Lowell Devils. He had more games played with a New England-based AHL team than the rest of the victims combined.

And, when the Devils pulled up stakes prior to last season and moved to Albany, Vasyunov, who was taken by New Jersey in the second round (58th overall) in 2006, went along, too.

So did promising young defenseman Tyler Eckford, who has since moved onto the Portland Pirates. The two not only broke into the pros together, they also became roommates and friends.

Eckford remembered Vasyunov fondly but forlornly.

“He was a great kid,” Eckford said. “It's a shame when a tragedy like that happens. I guess it could happen to anyone, but it's a real shame. He was such a great kid. I'm sure all the guys on that plane were great people.”

The news as it filtered out of Russia struck Eckford much as it did everybody else. He said it was all too surreal at first, but it soon sank in when he learned that Vasyunov was aboard the ill-fated flight.

“I remember watching it on CNN and seeing his name,” he said. “It hit home. When you have a connection with somebody that was on that plane … I was with him for a long time and it's a hard thing to talk about. He would have had a great career and was a great young man.”

Both players were called up by New Jersey in late October of 2010 to make their NHL debuts. Eckford stayed for just four games before being sent back to Albany, while Vasyunov's stay lasted a little longer -- 18 games.

Eckford said that Vasyunov became more outgoing as he made the adjustments to language and culture.

“He was a funny guy and liked to joke around,” he said. “Whenever he was on the ice, he was always positive. There was never negativity. He was always nice to be around.”

Like everyone else in the sport, Eckford has logged more miles, boarded more buses, buckled more seat belts and put his own life in the hands of others, far more times than he could count.

He's said he's left with a feeling of amazement that with all of those teams making all of those road trips, there aren't more tragedies like Yaroslavl, or even the Albany River Rats' bus rollover of three years ago on the Mass. Pike.

“You just have to be thankful,” he said. “We've traveled so much. On buses and planes. Knock on wood, there haven't been that many tragedies. It's definitely something to be aware of.”

Around the AHL

What could have been a sticky venue situation for the Portland Pirates for next season has been solved for that year and beyond. The Pirates announced they will play about half a dozen games per year at the Colisee in Lewiston, which sits about 45 minutes outside of Portland. The Pirates' home building, the Cumberland County Civic Center, is slated to undergo extensive renovations beginning this summer, and with far too much dust to be pardoned, the team was forced to consider alternatives for at least the early part of the season. The solution was to tap into the strong, secondary market in Lewiston, which was the home of the Maineiacs of the QMJHL until the franchise folded this year. … AHL teams continue to scoop up college and junior players on ATOs (amateur tryout contracts), as their amateur seasons or careers wrap up. Among the most recent signees are Sebastian Stalberg, the former Vermont standout, who signed with the Worcester Sharks (via San Jose) and Bobby Farnham (North Andover, Mass.), who signed with the Providence Bruins after finishing up his stay at Brown. Farnham's Brown teammate, goaltender Mike Clemente, also hooked on with the Peebs, but was released and has since signed with the Springfield Falcons.

Dan Hickling can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.