Riley Armstrong woke to a flurry of calls, messages and tweets Wednesday morning, wondering if he was OK.
Early news reports had the hockey player as a possible passenger on the Russian Yak-42 plane which crashed just after takeoff from Yaroslavl, which killed 43 people.
Most of the dead were members of the Kontinental Hockey League’s (KHL) Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, who were on their way to Minsk, Belarus, to open the KHL season.
But then another report said Armstrong was in St. John’s.
In turns out the 26-year-old was at his off-season home in Saskatoon, but will head here later this month for a professional tryout with the St. John’s IceCaps of the American Hockey League.
“I was never on the (Lokomotiv) team. It’s funny, I don’t know how my name got linked to being on the roster,” Armstrong told The Telegram.
“I just woke up to phone calls this morning. I think I had 10 missed calls,” he added. “It’s a little scary to think about it (but) pretty comforting knowing that I have people that were thinking of me. ... I didn’t realize how many friends I had, you know.”
Armstrong did know some of the Lokomotiv players and the team’s head coach, 52-year-old Brad McCrimmon, who was killed in the crash.
McCrimmon played 18 NHL seasons with six teams before moving behind the bench. He was an assistant coach for the Detroit Red Wings until taking the job in Yaroslavl in May.
“I knew Brad McCrimmon being from Saskatoon. And playing against Pavol Demitra and ... a couple of other players. It’s pretty sad. I played over in the KHL,” said Armstrong, who spent part of last season with the Barys Astana, a team based in Kazakhstan.
Wednesday’s tragedy added to what Armstrong called “a rough summer for the hockey world, especially for Saskatchewan.”
Three NHLers who died suddenly in the last couple of months — Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak — were from Saskatchewan or had ties to the province.
“It’s been tough around here. There’s been a lot of head hanging,” said Armstrong.
Boogaard and Belak were both born in Saskatoon. Rypien was born in Alberta, but played in the junior ranks for the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League.
Armstrong skated with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades on Wednesday morning, and said there was a sombre tone at the rink where McCrimmon coached in 1998-99.
Armstrong was never on the Yaroslavl roster, but said after McCrimmon was hired to coach the Lokomotiv, he did ask his agent to see if there was an opening for an import player on the team. However, he happily accepted the offer to try out for the Jets’ affiliate in St. John’s because it offered a chance to play closer to his family.
“It’s a little scary to think about it (but) pretty comforting knowing that I have people that were thinking of me. ... I didn’t realize how many friends I had, you know.” - Riley Armstrong
A right-winger, Armstrong spent six seasons in the AHL before heading to Europe, where in played for both Augsburg of the German Elite League and Astana in 2010-11.
He had a frightening tale about air travel in Russia.
“I’m not trying to bash Russia in any way, but I just think their respect level for safety (is) not up to par ... coming from Canada or the U. S.,” he said.
Armstrong said once, when his team was leaving Moscow, the plane filled up with smoke, causing him and the handful of other North American players on board to panic.
Others on the team told them it was normal.
“They said this is what happens when you idle, when you stay in one spot for a long time,” Armstrong said.
Another player Armstrong knows once posted a picture of a completely bald airplane tire from a Russian plane.
Although the tragedy is still fresh, Armstrong said he’s also excited for his chance to play for St. John’s.
“Hopefully, I’ll play well and they take me aboard,” he said of his opportunity with the IceCaps, whose training camp begins Sept. 27.