Czech, Slovak fans hold vigils for dead ice-hockey stars

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Czech and Slovak fans brought candles and flowers to ice-hockey arenas and public areas on Thursday to pay homage to star players killed in an air crash in Yaroslavl, Russia the day before.

Czech world champions Jan Marek, Josef Vasicek and Karel Rachunek and Slovak icon Pavol Demitra were among the 43 victims of an airport disaster that wiped out their Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team the day before.

In Prague's historic Old Town Square, about 300 people gathered around a makeshift memorial comprising a circle of candles, two hockey sticks, a hockey shirt, a Czech flag and portraits of the players.

"An anthem for the boys," a young man shouted and started to sing out of tune before the crowd of men and women, young and old, some in hockey shirts, many in tears, overcame him with a more skilful performance.

In the country where ice hockey is the most popular sport alongside football, the central Prague square has hosted parties for gold ice-hockey medallists -- a tradition that started after the 1998 Nagano Olympics and continued after the 1999, 2000, 2001, 2005 and 2010 world championships.

"I saw them play live, Marek and Rachunek, at the last two world championships," said Alice Rozumova, an ice-hockey fan from Prague.

Marek and Rachunek won the world title in 2010. Vasicek, Stanley Cup winner with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, was in the champions' team in 2005.

"I was hoping to see them in Prague" when it hosts the championships in 2015, "but unfortunately that won't happen," Rozumova told AFP after singing the anthem silently, tears welling up in her eyes.

Similar vigils were held in the towns where the players had started their careers, and in many other places across the country.

The Czech hockey association said the national team would retire the players' jersey numbers -- 4 for Rachunek, 15 for Marek and 63 for Vasicek.

In Trencin, Slovakia, fans came to the local arena to pay tribute to veteran centre Demitra, who had played for the local team before embarking on a 14-year-long career in the NHL.

"I have proposed to name the arena after this icon. His number 38 was legendary here, and it's been sacred since September 7," said Trencin mayor Richard Rybnicek.

© 2011 AFP

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