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Lokomotiv moves on from crash in Amish country

Thursday - 5/9/2013, 7:47pm  ET

Yaroslavl Lokomotiv's Alex Kruchinin, left, exercises with trainer Steve Saunders during a workout session, Thursday, May 9, 2013, in Manheim, Pa. The Russian hockey club is resuming its transformation far from the Volga River as the team rebuilds after one of the worst aviation disasters in sports history. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

AP Sports Writer

MANHEIM, Pa. (AP) -- Alex Kruchinin can step out the front door of his hotel and see nothing across the street but miles of farmland. Just down the road that weaves through the quiet countryside, there are farms and silos and enough wide-open spaces that it's almost impossible for a bunch of young hockey prospects thousands of miles from home to fall into trouble.

In the heart of Amish country, Kruchinin is living through a sort of reverse rumspringa, confined to two-a-day training sessions, regimented meals and not much to do outside the occasional trip to a nearby outlet mall.

Fun, for the most part, is on hold, for now.

Plucked from Russia and plopped into southeastern Pennsylvania, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl's reinvention continues not on the banks of the Volga River, but inside a weight room where each day they train like world-class athletes. The makeshift team that lifted both the pieces of the franchise and spirit of a city following one of the worst aviation disasters in sports history has hunkered down for five weeks here, for an introduction of Western training into their regimen, trying to add the speed and strength necessary to win championships in the Kontinental Hockey League.

This is Lokomotiv 2.0. Rebuilt from tragedy, the next generation of players push on for several grueling hours a day with one of sports' elite trainers.

Never far from their thoughts are the lost friends or former teammates -- their fallen comrades -- who were killed not long after boarding a chartered Yak-42 jet. Lokomotiv's plane crashed September 7, 2011 shortly after takeoff outside Yaroslavl, killing 44 people. All of its players, coaches and staff were wiped out, a catastrophic loss that evoked memories in the U.S. of the fatal Marshall University football team flight.

Lifting weights and forgoing favorite foods are small sacrifices for Lokomotiv.

"It's hard, but it's not a problem," the 22-year-old Kruchinin said. "Life is hard."

No team knows just how hard like Lokomotiv. Tom Rowe, a former NHL forward and Lokomotiv's American coach, was tasked with guiding the team through the aftermath of the accident and, somehow, into the playoffs. Each game was accessorized with teary tributes for the victims before they buried their feelings for 60 hard minutes of hockey still ahead.

"I wouldn't say we've moved past it. We don't ever want to forget that team," Rowe said. "But we need to take the next step."

The journey of molding a group of undersized teens into rugged pros starts nearly 4,800 miles away just outside Lancaster.

Kruchinin arrived with eyes as wide as the city skyline when he landed in New York last month. His dream of training in the big city was dashed on the car ride to Pennsylvania, each mile moving him closer toward Green Acres than 30 Rock.

There's not much to do in Manheim. So they may as well work out at Power Train Sports Institute.

Led by Steve Saunders -- who's trained NFL stars such as James Harrison to Hollywood's Liam Hemsworth -- each player is on an individual workout plan and pushed to his limit, balancing everything from proper nutrition to suitable rest periods, all crafted to give them an edge next season, and beyond.

"They're pleasers," Saunders said. "You can tell they're used to being coached heavily."

Overseeing it all from the bleachers for the first few weeks was Rowe, the first American-born player to score 30 or more goals in an NHL season.

Former NHL general manager Mike Smith, who voluntarily offered his services to Lokomotiv following the disaster, reached out to Rowe about taking over the team as it shifted back to the KHL following a one-year stint in the minors. Rowe trusted Smith and he enjoyed his interview with team president Yuri Yakovlev. He also knew if the situation was right for former coach Brad McCrimmon, killed in the crash, than it could work for him.

McCrimmon was survived by wife Maureen and children Carlin and Liam. Rowe exchanged emails with Maureen around the anniversary date to let her know how many people still cared for her.

All the Lokomotiv players knew someone on that plane. Kruchinin played on the national team with Daniil Sobchenko and Yuri Urychev.

"That's why I accepted the offer to come to the team," Kruchinin said. "They were my friends. It's hard, but we must be strong. We play for our team and we play for that team."

The disaster will never be forgotten by Lokomotiv. Before each game, two youth players wear the Lokomotiv jersey and hold the team flag as they skate a lap in silence. They join a third youth player, who tolls a bell three times in memoriam for the victims. Unlike a statue or a portrait that fans could breeze past, the tribute will remain a permanent part of Lokomotiv's pregame, a solemn reminder of all that was lost.

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