It was less than a month ago when Brad McCrimmon called former Continental Hockey League coach Dave King to talk about what it was like to work in Russia – the level of competition, the language issues, everything McCrimmon was about to face as the new head man of Yaroslavl Lokomotiv.
When the subject of travel came up, King explained it wasn’t the same as getting around in North America. When King coached Magnitogorsk in 2006-07, his players dubbed their propeller-driven planes “Pterodactyl Air.”
“I can remember being over there and taxiing off the runway and I’ve got my fingers crossed hoping we’ll get off the ground,” King said. “This is unbelievable. Brad was so excited to go there.”
The news broke early Wednesday and it shook the hockey world far and wide. For McCrimmon and all but one of his Lokomotiv players, there was no lucky takeoff. Through mechanical failure or pilot error, their Yak-42 passenger jet crashed soon after leaving the runway, claiming the lives of former NHLers Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins and the man affectionately known as Beast.
That was McCrimmon’s num de hockey. It described the way he played as a Stanley Cup-winning defenceman with the Calgary Flames and how he went about his business as an NHL assistant coach, most recently with the Detroit Red Wings. And yet the nickname was also a misnomer, considering how much he cared for his teammates and how much he loved the game.
McCrimmon had a heart the size of his hometown – Plenty, Sask. – and he showed it early. Stories of his hockey exploits would become legendary, like the 1979 Memorial Cup game he played with the Brandon Wheat Kings. On that night, against the Peterborough Petes, he logged 60 minutes 38 seconds of ice time. The only two minutes he missed were spent in the penalty box.
“I used to play a lot of minutes anyway,” McCrimmon said at the 2010 Memorial Cup in Brandon, where his brother Kelly is the Wheat Kings’ general manager/head coach. “It wasn’t a plan [to play an entire game and overtime] It just happened.”
Everywhere McCrimmon played, he brought passion and stability, and every team he left was never as good as it had been. That was certainly the case in Calgary, where he mentored young defenceman Gary Suter and stuck up for his teammates whenever needed. Even when it came to the media, The Beast was not to be trifled with. His stall was next to the Flames dressing room door and when the media was allowed in, and McCrimmon wasn’t happy, he’d slam the door shut to make his point.
“He was a leader,” Flames teammate Doug Gilmour said. “My first day in Calgary [after being traded there by the St. Louis Blues] the first people who brought me over for dinner were Brad and his wife Maureen. He was that kind of person. This is crazy.”
Neil Sheehy, another former Flame, remembered how much he benefited from McCrimmon’s friendly tutelage.
“Brad was just a first-class guy. A lot of fun. He worked with me all the time on my game because my game needed a lot of work,” Sheehy said. “He always told me he just didn’t like when I’d throw him a pass and hit him in the back of the head.”
When the Flames traded McCrimmon to Detroit, they figured his career was pretty much done. Not surprisingly, he hung around for another seven seasons before becoming an NHL assistant coach, where his straight-up style (and colourful vocabulary) made him a natural. The more he worked with his players, the more he wanted to learn about the game so one day he could become a head coach.
In a June e-mail to The Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek, McCrimmon noted he had been to Yaroslavl once before as a coach with the Canadian under-18 team. He wrote, “Great rink. Very good team. Should be extremely exciting and challenging at the same time.”
McCrimmon then added: “I was at a point where I needed something different and this came out of the blue. It’s the right time and the right place to do this.”
Sadly, it was neither. As King replayed his conversations with McCrimmon, he reflected on his travel concerns and the threat he hoped would never come to pass.
“I told Brad I was always a little leery about the Russian planes [and pilots]because they took off in any weather and I don’t think their safety standards are up to ours,” King said. “Wait until my wife Linda hears about this. She loved Beast. It’s just unbelievable.”
With a report from Dawn Walton