Ex-Gopher Angell has bad memories from Russian travel

  • Article by: BRIAN STENSAAS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 7, 2011 - 9:32 PM

Nick Angell played in the KHL last year and played with two of the 43 players killed. Asked if he always felt safe flying in Russia, he said: "Absolutely not."

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Former Gophers defenseman Nick Angell

Photo: RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII, Star Tribune file

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Former Gophers men's hockey player Nick Angell gets only two English-speaking television channels at his apartment in Berlin. But what he saw on the screen upon arriving home from practice Wednesday came through poignantly in any language.

"I saw something right away about a plane crash in Yaroslavl and like 38 people or whatever were killed and I thought, 'Oh [no], I hope it wasn't that hockey team,' " Angell said via phone. "I did a quick thing in my head like, 'Who do I know in Yaroslavl?'"

Angell soon found out it was the team, and hoped for the best thinking maybe there would be more survivors.

But through text messages with players around the globe, Angell's fears were confirmed.

Two of the players killed in Wednesday's crash -- goaltenders Stefan Liv and Alexander Vyukhim -- were former overseas teammates.

He declined to elaborate on his friendship with either player, saying only he knew Liv, an Olympian from Sweden, better.

"I'm sick to my stomach," Angell said." I am at a loss for words. It's a huge blow for fans, players and hockey in general."

The crash killed 43 people in all, including former Wild standout Pavol Demitra.

Angell, 31, played at Duluth East before helping the Gophers win the 2002 NCAA championship as a senior defenseman. He is in his ninth season playing overseas. He played on teams in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Germany before spending last season in the Kontinental Hockey League -- the same league as the ill-fated Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team.

Angell spent most of the last season with the KHL team Metallurg Novokuznetsk in southwestern Siberia. The team flew a chartered Tu-134 aircraft when on the road. Angell compared its appearance to "a World War II bomber."

The Yak-42 plane that crashed Wednesday was an improvement -- a newer model -- from those planes, Angell said.

"Where I was, we were 5 1/2 hours from Moscow, so that was a lot of flying," Angell said. The airplanes, he said, "looked [poor] from the outside. Inside, they're actually kind of nice. But, you know, I never got a look on the inside at the engine."

Angell was asked if he always felt safe flying in Russia.

"Absolutely not," he said. "There's no safety check or anything. Just get on, take off.

"I've never had an experience where we dropped 400 meters or anything; it was actually pretty good. But that plane we had, even though it was smooth sailing, it had a glass-nose front."

Angell said the plane his team used could not be used to fly into Latvia. Instead, the team had to land in Moscow and switch planes.

"From what I understand, our plane was not allowed," he said.

Angell had the chance to play in the KHL again this season, but opted to go back to Germany -- where he's playing for the Berlin Polar Bears and is reunited with former Gophers teammate Barry Tallackson -- for a welcomed change of pace.

"You can imagine the difference between Siberia and Berlin," he said. "I had the KHL experience one year, and it was enough for me there."

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