PRAGUE (AP) — Hundreds of mourners gathered in the center of Prague on Thursday to honor the three Czech hockey players who died in the plane crash that killed 43 people and wiped out a top Russian club.
People lit candles around a impromptu monument in the Old Town Square formed by two ice hockey sticks, with some wearing the Czech national team jerseys and chanting the names of the three players — Karel Rachunek, Jan Marek and Josef Vasicek.
They helped the Czech national team win the gold medal at the world championships in 2005 and 2010. Vasicek was on the Carolina Hurricanes' 2006 Stanley Cup team.
Thirty-six players, coaches and staff of Russia's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team were killed when their Yak-42 jet crashed on Wednesday outside Yaroslavl en route to their first game of the season in the Kontinental Hockey League.
In Prague on Thursday, after someone in the crowd shouted, "'Let's sing the anthem for the guys," the mourners sang the Czech national anthem.
In the past, the Old Town Square was the site of celebrations of Czech world championship hockey titles with fans and players partying together. On Thursday, the atmosphere was one of grief and sorrow.
"It's a tragedy," said Petr Kubalek of Prague. "That's all I can say. I knew Marek personally."
Many people signed the two condolence books that were placed at the square.
"The winners forever," one of the entries said.
Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said Thursday the Russian team has offered to transport the bodies of the three to the Czech Republic.
"We welcome this initiative," Schwarzenberg said.
The Czech ice hockey federation plans an official farewell ceremony for the players after their bodies return home, federation president Tomas Kral said. He said the players' national team jersey numbers will be retired.
A minute of silence will be observed at Czech arenas at the start of the top league season, he said.
In the Slovak capital of Bratislava, President Ivan Gasparovic lit a candle in the chapel of the presidential palace to commemorate Pavol Demitra, the former captain of the Slovak national team, another victim of the Russian crash. He also played for the St. Louis Blues and the Vancouver Canucks.
"I wanted to honor him at least by that," he said.