Four years ago, when Sergei Zholtok died at age 31 ago while playing at home in Riga, there were questions.
Was the proper medical treatment employed in the critical moments after he collapsed on the way to the dressing room? Was medical staff aware of his heart arrhythmia, and how to properly deal with it at the moment of truth that night back in Latvia during the lockout of 04-05?
It is still too soon after the death of 19-year-old Alexei Cherepanov on Monday to know the exact cause of death. And frankly, the way things work over in Russia these days, it is doubtful that a final, indisputable verdict will ever be reached.
But one agent whose firm has several big-name Russian clients playing in the Kontinental Hockey League — including Alexei Yashin, Darius Kasparaitis, Alexei Zhitnik and Dmitri Afanasenkov — admits that the medical standards in the KHL are nowhere near those of the National Hockey League.
“Obviously, the only thing in the Russian League that is equal to the NHL is salary. With everything else, no questions about it, you’re taking a chance,” said Todd Diamond of International Sports Advisors. “No question, the medical care in the Russian league – and the medical care all over Russia – is way behind what we have here in North America. Obviously it could have been done better, but what can you say?
“In Russia they are a lot quicker to put in a new Versace store than a new MRI machine.”
Reports out of the small city of Chekhov, located outside of Moscow, have been conflicting, serving only to cast doubt on whether Cherepanov received the type of medical attention he would have received had he been playing in North America.
The homemade video of the incident posted on YouTube tells a story of panic and unpreparedness for a situation that magnitude.
It is believed there was no ambulance at the arena at the time Cherepanov collapsed – it had left the rink, for some reason – and that the automated external defibrillator (AED) was not charged. It was that piece of equipment that saved the life of Jiri Fischer when he passed out on the Red Wings bench during a November, ’05 game against Nashville.
“The AED monitor that was at the scene… any lay person can apply it. It’s fairly simple,” Red Wings team doctor, Dr. Anthony Colucci, said at the time. “You place it on the chest and basically, the machine evaluates the cardiac situation and rhythm and then it tells you exactly what to do and how to shock it.”
NHLPA boss Paul Kelly, in an interview with Sportsnet’s Daren Millard Tuesday, was hesitant to endorse the KHL, even though it represents bargaining leverage for many of his union members. “If any player came to us for advice about whether they should move from the NHL to the KHL we would give them our honest, candid view,” Kelly said. “We would certainly … point out to them that you’re not going to get any better facilities, medical attention, emergency treatment that you will find here in North America in the NHL.”
Jamie Lundmark played half a season for Moscow Dynamo last winter. “When I first got there I thought the medical stuff was pretty good,” Lundmark said from Quad Cities, Iowa, where he is stationed on the Calgary Flames farm club. “I saw six or seven doctors, had a full medical, had an EKG [electrocardiogram]. Everything we did over there, we do here.”
The Dynamo trainer was the Russian national team trainer as well. As Lundmark made his way around the league, he did not get the feeling that the same standards were kept among every club.
“Definitely, thinking about it now, they don’t pay attention to a lot of the little thing that are an everyday thing in the NHL. You always see an ambulance here. They might have been there, but I can see something like this happening. For a [Canadian] guy like me, you’d think about it a little it harder now if you’re going to make that choice to get over there.”
This is the second tragedy in the young KHL season, after former Oilers goalie Jussi Markkanen’s four-year-old son fell to his death from an apartment window while playing with his brother in Moscow, where Markkanen was tending goal for CKSA.
Lundmark and a Russian regional investigator named Yulia Zhukova had the same questions on Tuesday: “Did hey give him a check before camp? Did he have a heart condition before?” asked Lundmark.
Cherepanov suffered from chronic ischemia, a condition that occurs when the heart or other organs do not get enough blood. “Checks will be conducted to clarify, in particular, why the sportsman with such an illness went on the ice,” Zhukova said.
If the lawsuit culture that has thrived in the United States has had one benefit, it is that professional clubs will not allow players with serious health risks to play for them. By allowing that player into the game, a team bears the burden of responsibility if a condition that they were aware of is exacerbated by the physical demands of sport.
It is still unclear how rigid those guidelines are in Russia.
“Let’s hope they learn from this and take the necessary measures to bring medical standards up to this level,” Diamond said. “I think they’ll take measures to improve the situation. It would be wise for the IIHF [International Ice Hockey Federation], if they want to do something constructive maybe you could … standardize these things so people know how to react.
“It costs money, but without the players there is no game. The league should want to care for its stars.”
If it wants those stars to choose the KHL over the NHL.