Jay LaPrete/AP
Alexei Cherepanov

Death of Russian Hockey Player Causes Concern

October 18, 2008 07:35 AM
by Denis Cummings
The death of 19-year-old hockey player Alexei Cherepanov has raised concerns about the cardiac health of young athletes and the emergency preparedness of Russia’s hockey league.

Cherepanov Dies After Collapsing During Game

Cherepanov collapsed on the bench during an Oct. 13 Continental Hockey League (KHL) game near Moscow. He died soon after in a local hospital due to heart failure, likely caused by a hypertrophic heart.

There have been conflicting reports about his death, many of which suggest incompetence or negligence by league doctors and officials. According to most reports, there was no working defibrillator and no ambulance waiting at the rink. Medical officials tried to resuscitate him using CPR and adrenalin shots while waiting for an ambulance to arrive. Some reports say that Cherepanov was briefly revived several times before ultimately dying.

A regional investigator, Yulia Zhukova was quoted by the Associated Press saying that Cherepanov suffered from chronic ischemia, a rare heart condition that would have been easy to diagnose. Many doctors have questioned the report, saying that it is unlikely a 19-year-old could have the condition.

Detroit Red Wing team physician Dr. Anthony Colucci, believes that, based on the reports he has heard, Cherepanov suffered from hypertrophy cardiomyopathy (HCM). “HCM would be No. 1 on my list for what was the cause of death,” he told TSN’s Bob McKenzie. “This is the leading cause of death in elite athletes who exhibit no other symptoms and then collapse during activity.”

Both the KHL and national legislature State Duma have announced that they will be investigating Cherepanov’s death. Pavel Krasheninnikov, a member of the State Duma and the Russian Hockey Federation’s supervisory council, said on Russian television, “There are elements of negligence here.”

Video: Cherepanov after collapsing

Background: Heart-related deaths in sports

There have been a number of athletes who have died from cardiac failures on the field of play, including NHL player Sergei Zholtok. Playing in his native Latvia during the 2004–05 NHL lockout, Zholtok collapsed while trying to return to the dressing room during a game.

Detroit Red Wings defenseman Jiri Fischer collapsed on the bench during a 2005 game and went into cardiac arrest. Dr. Colucci, the team’s physician, used CPR and defibrillation to resuscitate Fischer, saving his life. He told TSN’s McKenzie that both are needed for survival to be likely, adding that if neither is used, “Your chances (of survival) are zero per cent.”

Cherepanov likely died because of a hypertrophic heart, a genetic condition that thickens the heart muscle. It is difficult to diagnose and has led to the deaths of several young athletes, most famously basketball players Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers. “The first and sometimes only symptom you see from HCM is when the player collapses during activity,” said Dr. Colucci. “The individual goes into sudden cardiac arrest.”

HCM caused the death of junior player Mickey Renaud earlier this year after he collapsed in his home. It also ended the career of 18-year-old prospect David Carle, who was diagnosed during the NHL Scouting Combine before this year’s draft.

“The whole thing with Cherepanov and Renaud, if this doesn’t wake people up I don’t know what will,” Carle said to The Globe and Mail. “It’s a terrible thing, but we can use it as a bigger example: Go out and get tested.”

Tony Gallagher writes in The National Post that the NHL should introduce more rigorous testing for heart conditions. “To prevent it from happening again, teams could introduce a 24-hour halter heart monitor test for their players and even take them through a tough skate with the monitor to help detect lapses in heart function,” he writes. “This test has resulted in many people being diagnosed with problems before they reach any kind of critical stage.”

Opinion & Analysis: The effect on the KHL

The Continental Hockey League was founded this year by a group of Russian oligarchs looking to challenge the National Hockey League, offering large contracts to lure players there. However, the handling of Cherepanov’s collapse shows that the league has not invested properly in emergency training and equipment.

“It shows you how far behind the times the Russians are when it comes to medical assistance,” said TSN commentator Pierre McGuire. “When you see him on the bench, there is no medical support there. There is no stretcher. And you see the players carrying him off like a bag of potatoes. … If players want to utilize the Continental league as a negotiation tool against the NHL, they should take a look at the YouTube video. It’s frightening.”

Officials in Russia are embarrassed and outraged over the situation. Former NHL center Igor Larionov, who sits on the KHL’s board of directors, called for an emergency board meeting. He said that the KHL must learn from the standards of the NHL. Referring to the collapse of Jiri Fischer, Larionov told ESPN, “I was sitting in the stands that night when it happened. I will never forget it. And I warned the KHL about things like this.”

The KHL said it would launch an investigation to determine the true cause of Cherepanov’s death and learn from the mistakes made after his collapse. The fledgling league will need a strong response to establish credibility, especially if it truly wants to compete with the NHL.

“The idea that Cherepanov’s death may have been preventable is unacceptable in more ways than one. This tragedy is a serious black mark on the opening of the inaugural season of the Continental Hockey League,” writes Christopher Marcisz in the Moscow News. “It is the kind of effort attracting worldwide attention, and it is mindblowing that one of the league’s top young stars could die on the bench because an arena didn’t have its act together. It makes a farce of the entire league.”

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