When the New York Rangers selected Russian-born winger Alexei Cherepanov in the first round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, they took a huge gamble. Teams are often cautious about selecting Russian players because there is always that chance they will stay in their home country and play for the KHL, while ignoring their commitments to the NHL team that drafted them. But with the Rangers drafting at seventeenth of that year, and a player of Cherepanov’s caliber still available, they jumped at the opportunity and proudly selected the player touted as the “Next Pavel Bure” and nicknamed the “Siberian Express”.
The Rangers received criticism for this, but as Cherepanov spent the next year developing, and insisting that he could not wait to be a New York Ranger, it subsided and the choice was finally regarded as a steal. With Jaromir Jagr leaving the Rangers after the 07/08 season, he signed with Omsk Avangard of the Kontinental Hockey League. This is where Cherepanov would play, and Jagr said he would teach the young player everything he knew. He said he loved being a mentor to a possible future franchise player for the Rangers. The relationship was mutual, as Cherepanov too loved having Jagr around.
With the Rangers desperately needing offense, fans could not wait until the next season, when Cherepanov could finally arrive and be the driving force of the team’s offense. It was almost too good to be true— the Rangers finally had a piece of homegrown talent they could call their own, and one that was going to be a superstar.
But then tragedy struck. On October 13, 2008, two years to this day, Cherepanov was nearing the end of a game against Vityaz Chekhov. He finished skating a shift with line-mate Jaromir Jagr, spoke a few words on the bench, and then collapsed. He was quickly treated on the bench before being carried into the locker room. Because the game was near completion, the ambulance on hand for all games had already left, and it took doctors fifteen minutes to get to him. Once they got to the locker room, they found out that the defibrillator they had was almost entirely drained of battery. The ambulance arrived back on the scene and after twenty minutes, he arrived at the hospital. His heart was started five separate times, but after what looked like each revival, it stopped again.
Two hours later, Cherepanov breathed his last. The Rangers future superstar was dead at age 19.
Had the medical staff been more properly trained and the ambulance not left early, perhaps he would still be alive today; maybe not playing hockey, but alive. However, what is done is done, and so many little things went wrong, combining to form a disastrous situation.
I still remember where I was when I heard the news, downstairs watching an Islanders afternoon game. I received a text message from my friend alerting me of what he heard happened. I stayed to watch the game a little longer, hoping the announcers would have any news, but I then made my way upstairs to the computer and a Rangers Forum I used to frequent. There, all the members logged in at the time were in a thread discussing what may or may not have happened. There was no clear news for at least an hour, just speculation. The situation would unfold before our very eyes that the player we had been waiting a year to see was dead, and it would not sink in for days. It was perhaps the saddest day in Rangers history.
You can imagine how hard it was to believe. Every scouting report of the Rangers farm system, every prospect update, every preview of the future, all of those contained a mention of Alexei Cherepanov. It was not a matter of if he would help the Rangers, but when, and now that was all gone.
Over the next few days, more news came out about what happened. It was originally reported that he collided with Jagr on the ice before collapsing, but this was proven false. Jagr himself was heartbroken and as Rangers fans, we mourned because he was going to shortly be apart of our “family”.
It’s been two years now, and I often wonder how he would have succeeded in the NHL. Would he be playing alongside Marian Gaborik? Maybe leading a line of his own? Would he have broken any offensive records for a rookie? These are all questions, unfortunately, we will never know the answer to. The two years ago seems like it was yesterday— it is incredible how fast time flies.