RUSSIA– A Russian jet carrying a KHL ice hockey team crashed into a river bank Wednesday while taking off in western Russia, killing at least 43 people and leaving two others critically injured, officials said.The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the Yak-42 plane crashed in sunny weather immediately after leaving an airport near the city of Yaroslavl, on the Volga River about 150 miles northeast of Moscow.

It said the plane was carrying the Lokomotiv ice hockey team from Yaroslavl to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where it was to play Thursday against Dinamo Minsk in the opening game of the season of the Continental Hockey League. The ministry was carrying 45 people, including 37 passengers and eight crew, and two people survived the crash.

Slovakian forward and national team captain Pavol Demitra, who played in the NHL for the St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks, was on the plane, his agent, Matt Keator, told ESPN.com. “[It's] just awful,” Keator said.

Former New Jersey Devils forward Alexander Vasyunov was also among those killed, Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello told ESPN NewYork.com. Vasyunov was 23.

“I don’t think anybody can prepare for something like this,” Lamoriello said. “It’s just devastating news. Words can’t express my personal feelings.”

“I can’t say enough about him as a young man,” Lamoriello said. “He certainly had talent. His whole career was in front of him.”

A Czech embassy official said Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2000, were among those killed.

It wasn’t immediately clear which other players were on board the Yak-42. Officials said player Alexander Galimov survived the crash along with a crewmember.

“We are only beginning to understand the impact of this tragedy affecting the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl club and the international hockey community,” the KHL said in a statement. “First and foremost, our condolences go out to the families and friends of the players, coaches and staff lost in today’s tragedy.

“We know that there are many in the KHL family who will be grieving with us. As the investigation of this tragedy progresses we will work closely with investigators, government officials, club executives and the Yaroslavl community. We are working to find an appropriate way to honor this club and begin the healing process from the deep loss so many of us feel today.

“We are aware that many of you have questions. This tragedy remains our primary focus. We ask for patience as we find an appropriate way to proceed with the 2011/2012 season.”

International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel called the crash “a terrible tragedy for the global ice hockey community,” pointing out that the team’s roster included players and coaches from ten countries.

“Despite the substantial air travel of professional hockey teams, our sport has been spared from tragic traffic accidents,” Fasel said. “But only until now. This is the darkest day in the history of our sport.”

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin immediately sent the nation’s transport minister to the site, 10 miles east of Yaroslavl.

The plane that crashed was relatively new, built in 1993, and belonged to a small Yak Service company.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is a leading force in Russian hockey and finished third in the KHL last year. The team’s coach is Canadian Brad McCrimmon, who took over in May. He was most recently an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings, and played 18 years in the NHL for Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Hartford and Phoenix.

The Russian team also featured several top European players and former NHL stars, including Vasicek and Rachunek of the Czech Republic, Russian defensemen Ruslan Salei and Karlis Skrastins, and Swedish goalie Stefan Liv.

The KHL is an international club league that features teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia. Lokomotiv was a three-time Russian League champion in 1997, 2002-2003. It took bronze last season.

Swarms of police and rescue crews rushed to Tunoshna, a picturesque village with a blue-domed church on the banks of the Volga River. One of the plane’s engines could be seen poking out of the river and a flotilla of boats combed the water for bodies. Russian rescue workers struggled to heft the bodies of large, strong athletes in stretchers up the muddy, steep riverbank.

One resident, Irina Pryakhova, saw the plane going down.

“It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong,” she said. “It went down behind the trees and there was a bang and a plume of smoke.”

She said rescuers pulled victims’ bodies out of the Volga River. “I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on,” Pryakhova said.

A cup match between hockey teams Salavat Yulaev and Atlant in the central Russian city of Ufa was called off midway after news of the crash was announced by Conintental Hockey League head Alexander Medvedev.

Russian television broadcast images of an empty arena in Ufa as grief-stricken fans abandoned the stadium.

“We will do our best to ensure that hockey in Yaroslavl does not die, and that it continues to live for the people that were on that plane,” said Russian Ice Hockey Federation president Vladislav Tretyak.

In recent years, Russia and the other former Soviet republics have had some of the world’s worst air traffic safety records. Experts blame the poor safety record on the age of the aircraft, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality.

President Dmitry Medvedev has announced plans to take aging Soviet-built planes out of service starting next year. The short- and medium-range Yak-42 has been in service since 1980 and about 100 are still in service with Russian carriers.

In June, another Russian passenger jet crashed in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk, killing 47 people. The crash of that Tu-134 plane has been blamed on pilot error.

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