It was a September morning like any other for Kelly McCrimmon, general manager of the Brandon Wheat Kings. The Western Hockey League regular season was just around the corner, his team was gearing up for a title run, and then, at 8 a.m. one year ago Friday, came the news that turned his world upside down.
His brother Brad – two years older, best friend for life – was on an airplane in the Russian city of Yaroslavl that was headed for Minsk and the Continental Hockey League (KHL) season opener for Lokomotiv, the team Brad had signed on to coach. Conflicting reports circulated that first day, but one thing soon became clear. The charter plane carrying Brad and the rest of the team had crashed soon after takeoff. He and 42 other passengers aboard did not survive the impact.
The next 24 hours were a blur for the McCrimmon family. Kelly and Brad’s wife, Maureen, flew to Russia the next day to bring his brother home – and that’s when the reality of the events hit them both.
“It was tremendously raw,” said Kelly, reflecting on the tragedy. “Outside of the sadness and the grieving that took place there, when you had the families of all those other people there first-hand ... so you saw mothers, fathers, wives, brothers, sisters, children that were all going through the same thing.
“We had a funeral for all 43 people at six in the morning. Later, they moved all the bodies to the arena, where they had a tribute that basically ran all day for people from Yaroslavl to come pay their respects to those people.”
Kelly paused here, to gather himself.
“I think for me, I got a sense of why he went – because all you had to do was be there to recognize what that hockey club means to the city, how beautiful the rink and the facilities in it are. I know he’d been there with the under-18 team in 2003, so he knew where he was going to work and why it would be special. Other than that, on that day, it was just trying to fight through it.”
International Ice Hockey Federation president René Fasel called the Yaroslavl plane crash the “darkest day” in the history of hockey.
On Friday, there will be a silent march through the streets of Yaroslavl to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the crash. At 4:05 p.m. local time, mourners will release a series of white balloons into the sky to coincide with the exact time the plane went down.
According to Kelly, Maureen and her two children, Carlin and Liam, elected to make the trip overseas at the last minute so they could walk with the other families during the memorial. The crash took the lives of so many familiar names and faces from the world of hockey – assistant coaches Igor Korolev and Alexander Karpovtsev, players such as Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins, Karel Rachunek, Josef Vasicek, Jan Marek.
Brad won a Stanley Cup with the 1989 Calgary Flames and spent a dozen years as an NHL assistant coach, most recently with the Detroit Red Wings. He viewed the opportunity to coach in Russia as a chance to advance his career, and embrace a new life experience and grabbed it with his usual vigour and enthusiasm. Brad was like that – so fully engaged in his life that he practically crackled with energy.
“There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t all think of Brad and miss him,” Kelly said Thursday, “but certainly, those milestone days – birthdays, Christmas, Father’s Day – it hurts a little worse, and now the day we all knew is coming is tomorrow, so ...
“Maureen just really felt she didn’t want to be in Detroit, on the anniversary. She felt drawn to be with those other families and get through it that way. It’ll be Liam’s first trip there. Honestly, some of these things you can never fathom – and they do happen – but to see them lose their father, holy cow, that’s a hard one for me.”
Last month, Brad’s father, Byron, travelled to Yaroslavl with the Canadian junior team playing in Russia to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Summit Series. Byron was in Scotland, on a golfing holiday, when he heard the news about his son.
Hockey Canada made the arrangements to bring him over and made a moving, special presentation to him in Yaroslavl during the trip. To Kelly, it was a good thing for his father to visit Yaroslavl “because it allowed him to do the things we did – see where Brad lived, and why he wanted to do what he did. Also, I think the people of Yaroslavl were appreciative of the opportunity to meet him. They treated him unbelievably. They took him to the crash site – all the things he’d have any interest in seeing. That part, although I’m sure he had some emotional days, was helpful for closure.”
Ultimately, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl withdrew from the KHL last season and played in a lower league, using mostly players from its youth team. This year, the team was reinstated under a new coach – Tom Rowe, whose NHL career overlapped briefly with Brad’s in the early 1980s.
The KHL honoured the members of the fallen Yaroslav team at its season opener Wednesday night, in an event renamed the Lokomotiv Cup that featured the two top teams from last year, Dynamo Moscow and Avangard Omsk. League president Alexander Medvedev addressed the crowd and players representing both Canada and Russia’s 1972 Summit Series teams were in attendance, as well as Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and others.
Interestingly, Yaroslavl’s players will not attend the planned memorial Friday. Instead, the team is on the road in the far east of Russia to start the season and opened with a 5-2 win over Sibir Thursday night. Rowe’s team includes a number of former NHLers, including Niklas Hagman, Staffan Kronwall, Sami Lepisto, Vitaly Vishnevsky, Viktor Kozlov and goaltender Curtis Sanford. In an interview posted on the KHL website, Rowe described Brad’s memory as “hugely” motivating for this season.
As for Brad, he had spoken extensively to the first Canadian to have coached in Russia, Dave King, about what to expect prior to heading overseas and was aware of the risks of plane travel when he went over. It didn’t deter him, although when Kelly went over to claim his brother’s body, he made the trip to Yaroslavl from Moscow by car.
“He always enjoyed the Russian players that he coached in the NHL,” Kelly remembered. “I know when he went over and interviewed and met the people, he had a good feeling about it. He was really loving what he was doing when it happened.”