Imagine watching one of your players dying. New Lightning assistant coach Wayne Fleming always will have that memory.
As coach of Avangard Omsk in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, Fleming saw one of his most gifted players, forward Aleksei Cherepanov, collapse into the arms of teammate Jaromir Jagr on the bench near the end of an Oct. 13, 2008, game against Vityav Chekov.
Team doctors tried on the bench and in the dressing room to revive Cherepanov, 19, who died that night at a local hospital of an apparent heart attack.
The league announced Cherepanov, the No. 17 overall pick of the 2007 draft by the Rangers, had chronic myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart for which he took a banned medication provided, the KHL said, by team doctors. The league determined the doctors were not qualified to treat the condition and banned them and Omsk's general manager.
Fleming left in January 2009 (it was mutual, he said at the time), not long after he was suspended by the struggling team for the third period of a game amid reports he would be fired.
Still, Fleming, 60, who on Friday signed a two-year deal with Tampa Bay, his sixth team in an 11-year NHL career, said his half-season in Russia was rewarding. He even coached former Lightning draft choice Alexander Svitov. But the loss of Cherepanov still hurts.
"It's something you never want to go through again."
Is there anything you take from what happened?
From a team perspective, it was like taking a crystal vase and dropping it on the concrete floor and trying to pick up the shattered pieces. It was devastating. But it was the individual, too, that passed away. The thing that really hurts is not only do we lose a great player, we're missing just a fantastic young man. He had a great smile on his face. He was the golden boy of the KHL.
What do you recall about the incident?
When he first collapsed, there was about five minutes left in the game. It was Jagr who yelled at me and said, "Wayne! Wayne! We need help!" And I looked down, and Jagr was holding Aleksei on his lap on the bench. I could tell right away he was in trouble, and the doctors got to him and wanted to take him off the bench. They applied CPR. All I could think of was, "Oh, my God, no."
What impact did Aleksei have in Omsk?
This is a city of a million people in the middle of Siberia. When we had the ceremony and the funeral for him, it was in the arena. Prior to that, there was a (viewing) from 11 o'clock in the morning to 1 o'clock. During those two hours, 60,000 people went by his coffin; the youngest was probably 4 to I'd say the late 90s. When they closed the door to start the funeral, there were another 40,000 people estimated waiting who never got to walk by and pay tribute to Aleksei. You're talking about a town of a million that had over 100,000 people there to pay their respects.
How did you deal with it?
It was difficult because you're in a very foreign country. The customs are much different. My inability, perhaps, to express my true feelings to the team as a coach, a leader and a friend were difficult because of the language barrier and not being able to probably grasp the customs of mourning they went through.
What were your emotions?
I think sorrow more than anything. I don't think it changes your zeal for life or your enthusiasm for young players coming in and letting them do what they do best and enjoying the work. So I don't think I've changed. I probably just lost a little bit inside.
What do you learn coaching outside North America?
It changes your appreciation for people of different backgrounds, of different countries, of different areas. My appreciation and knowledge of the Russian people now are far greater than ever. Through my NHL career of coaching, I had the opportunity to work with some great Russian players, Alex Zamnov, Danny Markov, Sergei Nemchinov, Alexander Svitov. But to actually live with them as a neighbor and friend was special.
Svitov was a bust in Tampa as the No. 3 overall pick in 2001. How was he in Russia?
He was tremendous. He was the team captain, a tremendous competitor, a great leader, very demanding of himself, very demanding of his teammates and tough as hell. This was one big man who was not afraid of anything. There's no question he belongs back in the NHL.
Does he regret a disappointing NHL career?
I don't think he had any regrets. He was hopeful he could have found a stronger place in the NHL. He had trouble with the language when he initially came over. I think that made it a little bit difficult for him.
I always believed he understood more than he let on.
And now he speaks very well. He studied pretty hard there.
So, your experience in Russia was …
Difficult at times and rewarding at times. Did I enjoy it? I don't know if that was the right word, but I am grateful for the opportunity to spend a year in Russia and the KHL. It was a tremendous experience notwithstanding the passing of Aleksei.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.