Plane Crash Generates 'Disaster Draft' Discussion

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 7 air disaster that claimed the lives of virtually the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey team, more than 30 players from around Russia's Kontinental Hockey League volunteered to play for the team this season. However, it took just three days for the team to assert that it would not rush back to KHL play; on Sept. 10, Lokomotiv president Yury Yakovlev told Russia Today that competing was not on anyone's mind, at least for the time being.

"The main priority now is to take care of the relatives and to pay a last tribute to the late players and staff," Yakovlev said. "The other aim is to rebuild a competitive team. This will take some time as well as requiring human resources. But we are determined to resume participation in the KHL in 2012-13."

Rumors were already rampant at the time of Yakovlev's announcement that the team was doing its part to spare the KHL of having to admit what appeared to be the case - that the league had no plan in place to respond to the unthinkable loss of a team to an air crash. The team's other 23 teams had already pledged, separate from the players, to transfer as many as 40 players to Lokomotiv from all 23 surviving teams, and even to pay the players' salaries for the season.

Even if the KHL does have a contingency plan in place that includes a so-called "disaster draft," it is not so strange for the plan to be shrouded in secrecy. Few such plans are openly discussed, and published details typically appear only when a team-sports tragedy occurs - about once a decade. (The last event to prompt a spate of reports was the Jan. 27, 2001, plane crash that killed two Oklahoma State University basketball players and eight others returning home after a loss at the University of Colorado.) Details of the NHL's disaster plan (suddenly relevant given the number of former NHL players killed in the crash at Yaroslavl) began making the rounds of hockey blogs: It activates if five or more players on a team "are killed or disabled," and allows the affected team to select players from other NHL teams, using money from a special insurance fund. A subsequent special draft is held after the affected team has a roster that includes one goaltender and 14 other players, and includes only teams that have not given up a player.

Five is also the threshold number for disabled players under plans adopted by Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association - the NBA's specifies that it comes into play when five players "die or are dismembered" - while the National Football League provides for a "near-disaster," defined as fewer than 15 players disabled, and a "disaster," defined as 15 or more. Only a full-fledged "disaster" or the inclusion of a quarterback among the fewer than 15 players disabled, warrants a draft from other NFL teams.

Full-fledged disasters are relatively rare, and have become more rare in an era (at least in the United States) in which airliners fall from the sky infrequently. Rarer still is for a decimated team to fall off the radar after the crash. Universities enduring this type of tragedy have been aided by their biggest resource, the student body. The surviving members of the 1970 Wichita State University football team completed its schedule by filling out its roster with freshman players in what became known as the "Second Season." The crash of the Marshall University football team's plane late that same season led to the cancellation of its final game against Ohio, but the team famously put together a squad of junior varsity players, students and athletes from other sports to compete during the 1971 season.

Few professional sports teams have ever faced such a situation. In 1949, 18 of the 21 members of the Torino A.C. soccer team lost their lives when the team's plane struck the hill of Superga near Torino during a thunderstorm. The team was the reigning champion of Italy's Serie A for the previous four seasons, and led the league with four games to play when the disaster occurred. The club finished the season using its youth team, and out of respect its opponents fielded their youth players, as well. Torino won all four games and the scudetto.

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