Monday, October 13, 2008
Alexei Cherepanov R.I.P.
Shocking tragedy struck today as one of hockey’s brightest future stars, Alexei Cherepanov, died during a KHL game in an inglorious and spartan rink in the Moscow suburb of Chekhov. Cherepanov collapsed on the bench late in the third period and went into cardiac arrest. He reportedly lost and regained consciousness numerous times while being tried to be revived and waiting for an ambulance, normally at the arena but for some reason having left the game early, to take him to the hospital. Attempts to resuscitate at a hospital were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead at 10:55 pm local time. Cherepanov was 19-years old.
Cherepanov burst onto the international stage at the 2007 World Junior Championships, the preeminent junior-aged tournament, featuring future NHL and international stars. Though primarily a tournament for 19-year olds, Cherepanov led the tournament in scoring and was named the best forward by the IIHF. He was 17-years old. He went on to break the scoring record for first-year players in the Russian Super League that season, besting the rookie seasons of current and former Russian NHL superstars like Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk, Bure, and Fedorov. He was taken in the first-round of the following NHL draft by the New York Rangers, slipping all the way to 17th (largely due to the uncertainty of his moving to North America in the absence of a transfer agreement between Russia and the NHL) despite being considered among the most talented players in the draft. Following an unspectacular sophomore season in the RSL, Cherepanov began this season playing the best of hockey of his career; he was among the league leaders in scoring and had recently produced the longest consecutive points scoring streak in the league this season (at 9 games, he was finally shut out in the penultimate game of his life). He scored earlier in the game today and was by all accounts playing exceptional hockey. The day before his death saw Cherepanov realize a longtime dream: he was named to the Russian National Team.
I had only seen a handful or so of his games, between two World Junior Championships and some KHL games this season, but it was obvious to me that this was a special player. He had the raw skills necessary, but not merely sufficient, to score prodigiously: a phenomenally powerful shot, slick hands and all the dangles, and the speed to get to get to the puck and away from defenders. But perhaps most dangerously, and most required of true snipers, he had the knack to find the puck, fill the open spaces, and the goal scorer’s will and determination to go the net and finish, often with the panache and style reserved only for the greats. And the joy that both follows from and creates all that. Patrick Kane and Kyle Turris (two players selected before him in his draft) will be great NHL players for many years to come, but I think Cherepanov would have become the better hockey player and the more electric scorer. Of course we'll never know. He may not have been the once-in-a-generation-or-two talent that Ovechkin and Malkin are, but Cherapanov was a special, special hockey player that would have tantalized hockey fans for years and years to come.
Beyond my friends and family, many of my greatest joys come from hockey. And more than cheering for any specific team or outcome, I love watching great players do what they do, dance, create, work, think, feel, spin, move, compete, battle, and ultimately, play a great game. Cherepanov was one of those players who made it easy to spot the joy in his game and who brought the same out in me. Whether it was absolutely wiring the puck off one-timers that went screaming over the net, or finding the puck in his feet and flicking a backhander to the top shelf, Cherepanov played the game in the way that I fell in love with it in the beginning. I am really going to miss all the good times I would have had watching him play in the NHL and beyond. I am deeply saddened by his loss and all of ours.
The circumstances surrounding his death are troubling to say the least. The game was played in a tiny arena 40-miles outside of Moscow. The ambulance that should have been there was not and arrived 15 minutes after Cherepanov went into cardiac arrest. There is a video out there (I will not post here because of just how mind-numbingly sad it is) that shows Cherepanov receiving what looks to be very confused and disorganized medical attention on the bench. Players are looking over him while trainers who do not appear to be doctors look down at him, then up, then around, then back down. There was no stretcher to take him off the bench, rather a group of players carry him into a tunnel with his legs up and in the air and skates dangling limp. It’s a gut-wrenching scene. There are questions as to whether the defibrillators at the scene were working properly. Just outside a city that boasts more millionaires than any other in the world, a 19-year old (a millionaire in his own right) kid’s heart stopped and started several times as he went in and out of consciousness and struggled to live. Was there really nothing anyone could do to save him? Would those 15-minutes have made a difference? Could it really just end like this?
Laurie from Beyond the Blueshirts has done an excellent job in keeping up with Cherepanov's exploits this season, has a translation of Cherepanov's first and last blog entry written last week.
Rest in peace, young Alexei. My thoughts and prayers are with your family, friends and teammates.
UPDATE: A nice look-back on the ways in which Cherepanov was misunderstood as a player and a person by Gare Joyce. We'll never know just how much we lost yesterday.
UPDATE II: NY Times' Slapshot blog has the translation of a very vivid and unbearably sad account of the events from Russian journalists at the game.