Alexei Cherepanov passed away 12 years ago today

Remembering former Rangers 2007 first round draft pick Alexei Cherepanov 12 years later.

It was thirteen years ago that the Rangers had a very talented Russian scoring forward fall to them in the 2007 NHL Draft. With the number 17 pick, they were only too pleased to select Alexei Cherepanov out of Avangard Omsk from Russia.

Considered by TSN experts as a “top four talent” who only dropped due to questions about when he’d come over, it was like the Rangers knew he’d be there to be taken. They had the Cherepanov jersey ready when he was picked. What an exciting moment that was for the teenager. He looked thrilled.

A very skilled right wing who was named the Top Forward of the 2007 U20 World Junior Championships with five goals and three assists for eight points in six games, the future looked bright for the 18-year old from Barnaul, Russia.

A big admirer of Rangers superstar Jaromir Jagr, who returned to Avangard Omsk to play with him for the ’08-09 season in the newly formed KHL, Cherepanov had a dream come true. He was playing with his favorite player on the same line. It all must’ve felt like a dream. A teenage phenom on the same team as a legend. If only the story had a happy ending.

In ’08-09, Cherepanov was off to a promising start. He had scored eight goals and added five assists totaling 13 points. However, in the 15th game for Avangard Omsk, something terrible happened. It came in the same game he scored in. After finishing a shift with Jagr, Cherepanov passed out on the bench. Jagr signaled immediately for medical help.

For reasons only known to the new league, there wasn’t a functional defibrillator working that could’ve prevented a horrible tragedy. Even worse, the ambulance had left the arena and had to come back. By the time they got him to the hospital, it was too late.

Cherepanov had died of a heart condition. It was stunning news throughout the hockey community. How could a 19-year old athlete pass away? Apparently, he did have a heart issue the team physicians kept under wraps. They ruled the cause of death due to myocarditis. A condition where not enough blood gets to the heart. However, that was disputed by a regional investigator who claimed it was due to chronic ischemia.

Whatever the reason, on Oct. 13, 2008, Alexei Cherepanov died at only age 19. His final shift came with Jagr on a two-on-one before returning to the Omsk bench. While having a discussion with Jagr, that’s when he collapsed. It still remains a mystery.

A chemical analysis of his blood and urine concluded that Cherepanov had been blood doping for several months. They said he had taken the banned stimulant nikethamide hours before the game. The investigation found several Avangard Omsk team personnel guilty of criminal negligence for their roles in Cherepanov’s untimely death. That included the team doctors.

It’s shameful to think this actually happened. Even a dozen years later, I can still remember watching NHL Network when during a Rangers special on former captain Mark Messier, I saw the news flash across the screen. I did a double take. I didn’t believe it at first. But when it flashed again, I told my Dad and brother. It was hard to take. A kid that age and so young. Why?

We went to the game that night at MSG. There was a moment of silence. I don’t recall anything else about that game. It didn’t matter. I was heartbroken. It was like being there after 9/11 for the preseason game versus the Devils. Except that was even worse due to the scary circumstances.

I was very excited for Cherepanov after watching highlights of him. He definitely looked like a impact player with the kind of finishing capability the Rangers lacked. They had good teams during that time. But never a young potential star who could become a game breaker post Jagr.

Maybe Alexei Cherepanov could’ve been that guy for the Blueshirts. Perhaps he may have helped them win a Cup during the Henrik Lundqvist Era. We’ll never know. Instead, we’re left to ponder what could’ve been.

But most importantly, I can only imagine how difficult this day must be on the Cherepanov family. Parents should never have to bury their kid. Were they ever fully compensated for the tragic loss of their son? Does it even matter? No amount of money can replace a loved one. He had a bright future and then it was over before it really started. Ugh.

Since the tragedy, the KHL has named their Rookie of the Year Award after Cherepanov. It’s the Alexei Cherepanov Award. A good way to honor his memory. They learned a valuable lesson. The league has survived and even expanded into other countries including China and Slovakia.

Here’s a final thought. Cherepanov was a rarity. He came from Siberia and made it. Not many players have to work that hard to become a good player. Ironically, he was nicknamed the Siberian Express. In a tribute, I named my fantasy hockey team that in our South River League. I would win the championship in ’09-10. Maybe it was fate. Or perhaps Cherepanov was smiling down. I got a little lucky. Sometimes, you have to.

How I wish Alexei Cherepanov was still around. What kind of player could he have been? It’s too hard to answer. I loved his speed, skating and goal scorer’s instinct. He knew where to go. Not only was he good on breakaways showing off that unique Russian speed, but Cherepanov wasn’t shy about going to the dirty areas to score goals like the hardworking rebound he scored on against Sweden. Or how about the dominant shift he had on the forecheck before going top cheese on Team USA.

Maybe it’s hard to believe he’s been gone so long. Twelve years today. We still remember him. God bless the Cherepanov family. 💛💜

Алексей Черепанов (15 January 1989 – 13 October 2008)

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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