Gary Suter needed a couple of days to reminisce about the man who shaped his hockey career.
One of the first things he recalled about Brad McCrimmon was the time the two Calgary Flames went out for some late-night refreshments. At a bar table, McCrimmon used beer bottles and salt-and-pepper shakers to represent players and where they should be on the ice for break-out plays. Even away from the rink, McCrimmon was always thinking hockey and looking for his younger defensive partner.
“When I heard McCrimmon had died I sat back and thought about him and I realized how much he meant to me and my career,” said Suter, now living and coaching youth hockey in his native Wisconsin. “He did a lot for me.”
McCrimmon and all but one of his Yaroslaval Lokomotiv players were killed Wednesday when their passenger jet crashed soon after takeoff. The 52-year-old McCrimmon had enjoyed a lengthy NHL playing and coaching career and was about to begin his first season as a head coach in the Continental Hockey League.
Suter said he fondly remembered how he and McCrimmon became a defensive duo and friends.
“I had come back from the 1987 Canada Cup and I was in (Calgary head coach) Terry Crisp’s doghouse. He had me on the fourth-line as a left winger,” Suter said. “Then Crispy put me with Brad after five games. I said to Vince – I always called him Vince because of (the Gomer Pyle TV show character) Sgt. Vince Carter – ‘Time to bring me back.’ He said, ‘We’re going to be a great pair.’
“I ended up with 91 points that year starting off as a fourth-line left winger.”
McCrimmon’s stay-back defensive style allowed Suter the freedom to skate up ice and make plays. Having toiled alongside such greats as Ray Bourque with the Boston Bruins and Mark Howe with the Philadelphia Flyers, McCrimmon’s steady presence brought Suter back and then some. Unfortunately for the Flames, McCrimmon’s strong will led to his departure.
“He butted heads with Crispy, which was probably why he didn’t stay long with us, just three seasons,” recalled Suter. “Vince wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. He was black and white; there were no grays.”
Asked the best advice he ever received from McCrimmon, Suter chuckled and spoke of the night in the bar with the beer bottles lined up to demonstrate the proper positioning.
“He told me, ‘It’s a simple game” … I last spoke to him in March of this year. He was good. In hockey, you play with guys for brief periods then everyone kind of drifts apart. You don’t stay in touch as much as you should,” said Suter. “When someone goes, you do reflect back on them, and I didn’t realize just how big an influence he was on me until this.”