By Ian Oland
Ten years ago, RMNB had one of the biggest and most transformative days in its history and for me, it’s part of the magic and lore of the site. I also think, in some way, it’s a reason why some of you heard of us or read us now.
On Valentine’s Day in 2013, the Washington Capitals defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning at Tampa Bay Times Forum, 4-3. Like we had done for the last three years prior, we covered the game on the site. The Capitals were led by a two-goal performance by Eric Fehr and a game-winning goal by Jay Beagle. Braden Holtby made 27 saves in the victory. Alex Ovechkin did not score or register a point.
But little did we know, by the sound of the final horn, our blog’s writing for that night was just beginning due to an event halfway across the world.
Stumbling upon a mega space story
As RMNB was wrapping up our hockey coverage in Frederick, MD and the clock was approaching 11 pm, contributor Fedor Fedin made the mistake of reaching out to me about some odd news on AIM before going to bed. An ardent and passionate hockey fan, Fedor had watched the Capitals-Lightning game well into the morning from his apartment in Moscow, Russia.
Fedor recalled noticing a Russian-language tweet on Twitter from Alexander Plushev (@Plushev) that something exploded in Chelyabinsk, Russia.
“It must’ve been around 6 am Moscow,” Fedor said, “because back then 3 am Moscow corresponded to 7 pm Eastern and I think the game ended late, so it must’ve been 5:50-ish.”
Fedor remembered the sun was starting to rise in his window.
The news seemed irrelevant to a hockey blog until you consider that Capitals’ 2010 first-round pick Evgeny Kuznetsov was playing for his hometown Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL and the team was home that day. Kuzy was considered the best hockey player outside of the NHL and many analysts believed that the Russian centerman could have a major impact on the Capitals whenever he decided to play in the NHL. Highlights of Kuzy’s other-worldly skill tantalized fans across the globe on a weekly basis.
As I considered the broadness and lack of details surrounding the “explosion” report, I started considering it was possible that a large bomb exploded or a terrorist attack was carried out in Chelyabinsk. I worried Kuznetsov’s safety could be in danger. Russia was several years removed from the Second Chechen War ending and the Moscow Metro Bombing – a terrorist attack that killed 39 people. Violence of that scale, while rare, was not necessarily unprecedented.
“I thought it could be a military training mishap, but a satellite falling out of space made the most sense to me,” Fedor said.
I decided to take Fedor’s translated news to RMNB co-founder Peter Hassett and see what he thought.
Peter was initially dubious of the story’s relevance to RMNB like I was too, but the more I explained my sincere worries about Kuznetsov’s safety and we did research, he came aboard. We formed a three-person team where Peter, who was the best-equipped writer for a breaking news story, would continue researching and lead the article, I would provide support, and Fedor would translate any Russian-language news that came in. Fedor, however, admitted to me a decade later that he was reluctant to participate.
“I wasn’t even sure if it was real and I really wanted to sleep,” Fedor said. “Like really bad.”
We searched through Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube for reports using the Cyrillic version of Chelyabinsk and its nickname ‘Chelly.’ We combed through information that was being posted.
Our first published draft of the article, entitled What Is Happening In Chelyabinsk, presented Plushev’s translated explosions report and other context we found. By that time, dashcam videos of the event were being posted to YouTube and we had added them to the story. They were terrifying.
The scene seemed apocalyptic and out of a sci-fi movie. It was unclear what was happening or if Chelyabinsk was further in danger.
Every few minutes, we updated the story with new translated news and videos that further showed evidence of what happened. The RMNB story, at the time, was only getting a trickling of pageviews.
Windows have been blown out. The sky is streaked with contrails. Evacuations are underway.
Thinking of Kuznetsov, I reached out to a Capitals representatitve before midnight to ask if the team could check on the draft pick to make sure he was safe.
Eventually, Plushev relayed a message on Twitter from the Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Ural region that presented an outcome we didn’t consider. “A meteor shower passed over the Chelyabinsk region, there was no fire.”
We updated our story and the title: Explosions in Chelyabinsk; Meteor Suspected (UPDATED). Hits became pouring in. RMNB had recently been accredited as a Google News publisher earlier in the month and our story was showing number one for Chelyabinsk meteor in Google News. We were the first English-language source that had the videos and information translated into English. This was back in a time when Google Translate was not as functionable or reliable.
After adding other details and accounts, such as from Traktor Chelyabinsk goaltender Michael Garnett, we all went to bed: Fedor in Russia around 8 am and Peter and I around 1 am in the United States on February 15.
Meteorite shook Chelyabinsk this morning. Shook my whole building and woke me up!#челябинск youtube.com/watch?v=4ZxXYs…
— Michael Garnett (@MichaelGarnett) February 15, 2013
When we woke up the next day, we started understanding the — no pun intended — gravity of what we had accomplished. The Chelyabinsk meteor was the biggest meteor to hit the earth in over a century and it was heavily covered by US media. Many news sites sourced our work.
RMNB, which briefly went down off and on due to server overload, ended up getting close to a million pageviews that day. It dwarfed any attention we’d received previously.
Media, both local and national, reached out to us to do interviews about how we stumbled upon the story. RMNB was also briefly mentioned in the Chelyabinsk Meteor Wikipedia page for its coverage.
Peter did a TV interview with Fox 5 DC. Rachel Martin of NPR asked if she could interview us (Peter and Chris Gordon ended up participating) for Weekend Edition Sunday. The segment was called How A Hockey Blog Got The Scoop On Russia’s Meteorite
The most complimentary story came from The Atlantic entitled How a D.C. Hockey Fan Site Got the Russian Meteorite Story Before the AP. The story, written by Garance Franke-Ruta, detailed how we came about the story so quickly and how random it was.
If you were on Twitter last night your first English-language news of the Russian meteor hit — the largest to come to Earth since the 1908 Tunguska explosion in Siberia — likely came from a website with a passel of the most amazing Russian dashboard cam videos and a name guaranteed to raise suspicions about its veracity. That is, of course, unless you are a Caps fan, in which case you know that Russian Machine Never Breaks is a great source of news and information about some of the Washington region’s most outsized sports figures on one of its best teams — and not a site given to elaborately staged pranks and hoaxes.
Later, we got an opportunity to have lunch with Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. He asked us to contribute to the Capitals TV show, CRL, which was produced by Monumental Network. Leonsis was incredibly kind and supportive. For me, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life.
Evgeny Kuznetsov’s experience
Ahead of the 10-year anniversary, I went to MedStar Capitals Iceplex to ask the very-much-still-alive Evgeny Kuznetsov about his experience and what he remembered from that day. Post-meteor, Kuznetsov eventually came to DC and has become one of the greatest Capitals in franchise history: he ranks fifth in game-winning goals in the regular season and playoffs (34), sixth in assists (379), and tenth in points (540). The centerman also helped lead the Capitals to its first and only Stanley Cup in 2018 — leading the team in playoff points with 32.
The meteor exploded in the sky over Chelyabinsk around 9:20 am (Yekaterinburg Time).
“I think that was the year or two years before I came here,” Kuznetsov said. “I was actually eating breakfast in my apartment when it was big light. I was like maybe it sun but then 15 seconds later there was a loud sound. So all the cars start beeping. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ Nobody knew what happened because there was no service — nothing.”
Without any way to communicate with anyone, the then 20-year-old Kuznetsov carried on with his day and drove to Traktor Arena for his team’s skate. During the KHL’s 2012-13 campaign, Kuznetsov was one of the KHL’s brightest stars and in the middle of his biggest season to date. By year’s end, he scored 19 goals and tallied 44 points in 51 games for Traktor Chelyabinsk.
“When I got to the practice, we kinda put the news on and there was a meteor,” Kuznetsov said. “It was bad, but then when we found out what it was, and that was pretty cool. It was pretty lucky that it fell 80 kilometers away from the town.”
Kuznetsov recalled that a large fragment of the meteor fell into Lake Chebarkul. “Where it land on the lake, there was cops all around so there was nobody around,” Kuznetsov said. “We have a little piece in a museum in Chelyabinsk so you can look at that.”
Per Wikipedia, about 1,500 people were injured seriously enough that day to seek medical treatment and 7,200 buildings across six cities were damaged by the explosion’s shock wave. That included Traktor Arena.
“There is a big gate (there) and gate was broken,” Kuznetsov said. “But the arena was nice, it was a little shaky but nothing dangerous so they fix it right away.”
The city was not as lucky.
“There was a lot of people in our town, basically half of the town the windows was broken so the people who have a window business was not doing good after that,” Kuznetsov said. “It was no joke.”
In the aftermath of the explosion, Kuznetsov said there were pieces of the exploded meteor “everywhere” around the city. I asked him if he ended up finding some of the space rock and keeping it for himself to remember the day.
“No, I give it away,” Kuznetsov said. “It was cool like you can hold in your hands and you feel there is something inside, it’s pretty cool. It’s hot as s*&^. You can feel it’s very warm still.”
As for the experience, I asked Kuzy if it was weird or scary.
“No, we’re from Russia,” Kuznetsov said in all seriousness. “It’s like whatever. There’s not a lot of things that can surprise us.”
RMNB’s grown. A bunch. Previously, we published two or three stories a day. Now, in our 13th year, we post around five to 10 times daily during the season. We have close to 200k followers on social media.
Many of our longtime readers who remember our coverage will tag us on Twitter if there’s a new shooting star caught on camera. That’s fun.
While I look back fondly at our performance and attention that day, Fedor admitted he was initially bummed that the attention wasn’t for what we’re best at.
“I was a little sad it wasn’t about hockey, it’s not something you can replicate and get a million hits, so I was more reserved about that success,” Fedor said.
Fedor also hoped it’d help translate into him being a hockey reporter someday in Russia.
“I thought if I had actually known a thing or two about space, I could make a career out of it,” he joked.
There may be no better evidence of how much things have changed since then than Alexander Plushev. The journalist, who tweeted out information about the meteor event, is no longer broadcasting in Russia. Plushnev was a host of the independent-run “Echo of Moscow” beginning in March 1998, but saw his station taken down in March 2022 after Russia’s war in Ukraine. Plushev now contributes to Deutsche Welle – German state-owned media.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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