A Canadian coach and six former NHL players are among the 43 people confirmed dead after the jet chartered by a top Russian hockey team crashed shortly after takeoff on Wednesday.

Counting the toll on the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team, the International Hockey Federation said 27 of the team's players were killed in the crash, along with seven club officials and two coaches including Canadian Brad McCrimmon.

Two others were critically injured when the Yak-42 passenger jet slammed into a riverbank just moments after taking off from the city of Yaroslav, 240 kilometres northeast of Moscow.

The weather was sunny and clear as the plane took off, but Russian media reports that the airliner struggled to gain altitude before crashing into a signal tower.

Irina Prakhova, a local resident, said she watched the plane fall from the sky and then heard a loud bang.

"It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong," she said.

The cause of the crash remains unclear, but Russian news agencies cite local officials saying technical problems may have been a factor in the crash of the 18-year-old jet owned and operated by the Moscow-based charter airline Yak Service.

In 2009, the European Aviation Safety Agency ranked Yak Service as the least safe of 35 Russian air carriers flying to Europe, according to The Moscow Times.

The Yak-42 is a Soviet-built, three-engine, mid-range passenger jet that has been in service since 1980. The Associated Press estimates that 100 remain in service with Russian airlines.

In recent years, Russia and other former Soviet republics have recorded some of the worst air traffic safety records in the world. Experts attribute the trend to aging aircraft, poor government regulations, weak pilot training and cost-cutting by local air carriers.

Prior to this latest crash, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had announced plans to take aging Soviet-built planes out of service starting next year.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has sent his transport minister to the site of the crash.

Team devastated

The jet was carrying members of the Lokomotiv ice hockey team to the Belarusian capital of Minsk for the opening game of the Kontinental Hockey League season.

The KHL is a league that includes players from several countries including Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is considered a top KHL team, having ranked third in league's fourth season last year. Among the international international stars on its roster are Sweden's Stefan Liv and Czech Republic's Jan Marek. A Czech embassy said Marek was killed in the crash, along with fellow Czech players Josef Vasicek and Karel Rachunek.

Others confirmed dead include Latvian defenceman Karlis Skrastins, Belarusian defenceman Ruslan Salehi and Slovakian national team captain Pavol Demitra, who had played for the St. Louis Blues and the Vancouver Canucks.

McCrimmon, 52, was a native of Saskatchewan. He played for six NHL teams in his career and most recently served as an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings. He took the coaching job with the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in May.

Russian player Alexander Galimov and a crewmember both survived the crash, although a medical official reported their condition as "very grave."

By evening, thousands of fans were gathered outside Lokomotiv's arena in Yaroslavl waving team colours in honour of the dead.

"We will do our best to ensure that hockey in Yaroslavl does not die, and that it continues to live for the people that were on that plane," Russian Ice Hockey Federation president Vladislav Tretyak said.

With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press