Alexei Cherepanov, a 19-year-old top prospect for the New York Rangers, passed away on Oct. 13, and the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death have become a hot-button topic around the globe.
Cherepanov, nicknamed the “Siberian Express” by the press, played for Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. As a rookie, he broke the rookie scoring record, previously held by Pavel Bure, and was selected 17th overall later that year by the New York Rangers – although he was ranked higher going into a draft, many teams feared that there would be future contract disputes with the Russian Hockey Federation. The Rangers took the chance and Cherepanov didn’t disappoint, scoring 28 points in 15 games the following season. He had one year on remaining on his contract with Omsk, and was expected to join the NHL next season.
Jaromir Jagr, a former NHL star who captained the Rangers last year, played on Avangard Omsk with Cherepanov and served as the young man’s mentor.
“It is very painful for me to talk about it,” Jagr told Czech publication MF DNES. “It’s terrible. I’m in a state of shock. We were very close.”
Jagr was reportedly sitting on the bench and joking with Cherepanov during a game against Vityaz Chekhov in the Czech Republic, when Cherepanov suddenly buckled. He regained consciousness and was brought to the locker room, but lapsed again and could not be revived.
“Everything happened so suddenly,” Jagr said. “Lesha left the ice, sat on the bench. And died.”
Further examination showed that Cherepanov suffered from chronic ischemia - a medical condition when not enough blood gets to the heart or other organs. There is some dispute as to why this condition was not detected during the rigorous testing that every player undergoes, and there has been alleged negligence involved in the medical attention Cherepanov received. There was no ambulance on duty at the arena where Cherepanov was playing, and the nearest one was over 15 minutes away. The defibrillator, which could have been used to re-start Cherepanov’s heart, was either not working or unavailable. Investigations are ongoing.
Regardless of who is to blame, this has been a tough year for the league. In February, Calgary prospect Mickey Renaud, 19, collapsed and died at his home in Ontario. Luc Bourdon, a 21-year-old defenseman with the Vancouver Canucks, was killed instantly when his brand-new motorcycle collided with a tractor-trailer in late May. With any hope, these tragic losses – Renaud’s death was also blamed on a heart condition – will lead to more advanced screening for players entering the draft combine. While the kids would not have been allowed to play the game they love, they would have lived longer, healthier lives.