09/11/2011 12:30 EDT | Updated 11/11/2011 05:12 EST

Thousands gather at memorial ceremony in Prague for Czech victims of plane crash

PRAGUE - Thousands packed a central square in Prague on Sunday to honour the memory of the three Czech hockey players who died in a plane crash that killed 43 people and wiped out a club in the top Russian league.

Former and current Czech hockey stars attended a memorial ceremony Sunday for Karel Rachunek, Jan Marek and Josef Vasicek. Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias and Dominik Hasek joined coaches and officials at the ceremony at the Old Town Square organized by the Czech hockey federation.

They helped the Czech national team win the gold medal at the world championships in 2005 and 2010. Vasicek was also on the Carolina Hurricanes' 2006 Stanley Cup team.

The mourners laid flowers on a stage dominated by large black and white photographs of the three players with their national jerseys hanging above them, while fans lit thousands of candles in front of the stage to honour them.

"Our grief can hardly be compared with what it means for their nearest and dearest ones," Elias said.

After the mourners observed a minute of silence, federation president Tomas Kral called the three "great and irreplaceable players, friends and people."

People applauded brief videos that were shown on a big screen that summed up the highlights of their careers.

"We thank you," Kral said.

The federation announced that the players' national team jersey numbers — 4 (Rachunek), 15 (Marek) and 63 (Vasicek) — will be retired.

Mass was celebrated for the three after the 30-minute ceremony in a nearby church.

"They did so much for the nation," said 38-year-old Martin Kosvica, who travelled with his family from the northwestern city of Teplice to attend the memorial. "The gave us so much joy. They united the nation."

Thirty-six players, coaches and staff of Russia's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team were killed when their Yak-42 jet crashed Wednesday outside Yaroslavl, Russia, en route to their first game of the season in the Kontinental Hockey League.