Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The hockey world is small enough that the Wednesday plane crash that claimed the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team has touched virtually ever corner.
Kamloops is no exception.
Guy Charron, the head coach of the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers, knew Lokomotiv head coach Brad McCrimmon and Czech defenceman Karel Rachunek, both of whom were on the ill-fated plane that was carrying the team to its KHL season-opening game.
In 1999, Charron was the head coach of the IHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, who were affiliated with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, and had Rachunek on his roster.
“He was a good kid . . . a young guy,” Charron said. “He had good skills . . . good talent. What makes it tough is that I had a rapport with him at one point in his life.”
As Lokomotiv prepared to open its season against Dynamo Minsk in Belarus, Rachunek was the captain of McCrimmon’s team.
Charron got to know McCrimmon while both were working in Calgary, Charron with Canada’s national team and McCrimmon as an assistant coach with the Flames. Like everyone else in hockey, Charron doesn’t have a bad word to say about the man who was known throughout the hockey world as Beast.
(There was a time when McCrimmon was known as Sarge, but that became Beast at some point during his pro career. In a 2008 interview with Craig Custance of Sporting News, McCrimmon said the ‘Beast’ nickname was hung on him by former teammate Peter McNab’s daughter. It was during McCrimmon’s rookie NHL season with the Boston Bruins. According to Custance, “She thought he resembled a children’s character named Beast and the nickname stuck.”)
It’s not that Charron and McCrimmon hung out together or had family barbecues. Rather, they would see each other at coaches’ conferences and compare notes, whether it was about Xs and Os or about the salaries being paid to assistant coaches.
“We had no problem getting together or having a beer,” Charron said after practice on Wednesday. “We were doing the same jobs.”
Charron had a lot of thoughts flashing through his mind yesterday. After all, there was a time when he came close to coaching in that neck of the woods. As well, Dave King, the former head coach of Canada’s national team, is a long-time friend who did some time as the head coach of the KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
King, with The Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek, would later write a wonderful book — King of Russia: A Year in the Russian Super League — in which he touched on air travel. Suffice it to say, King was not thrilled with many of the travel arrangements.
“My wife was referring to that,” Charron said, adding that Glen Sather once approached him to see if he had any interest in taking over Belarus’s national team.
“Things didn’t work out,” Charron said, but he had considered it “even though I wasn’t all that keen about it.”
At the time, Charron and King had conversations about coaching there.
“David said to me, ‘Things are never guaranteed,’ ” Charron said. “Wayne Fleming (another Hockey Canada coach) went there and he didn’t have the best of experiences either. And I had been there a number of times so I wasn’t all that crazy about going back.”
McCrimmon went there simply to become a head coach. He had worked as an NHL assistant coach with four different franchises. He had been offered one head-coaching job — by the Atlanta Thrashers — but turned it down because he felt more of the money should have been guaranteed.
He was a farmer’s son from Plenty, Sask., and he knew that you had nothing without principles and credibility.
During his days with the Brandon Wheat Kings, McCrimmon was as good as any defenceman ever to have played in the WHL. He was the best player on the 1978-79 Wheat Kings, a team that lost only five games all season and went on to lose the Memorial Cup championship game in overtime.
Why did they lose?
Because McCrimmon ran out of gas. Legend has it that McCrimmon played every minute of that game, other than when he was serving a couple of penalties. In truth, McCrimmon didn’t play every minute of the game — the Peterborough Petes won it 2-1, getting the winner at 2:38 of OT — but he likely was on the ice for 50 minutes.
“Just think how good he would be if he played a regular shift instead of 50 minutes a game,” Dunc McCallum, the Wheat Kings’ head coach, had said prior to the championship game. “He'll play 45 minutes a game with no problem. His composure is great and he's got super upper-body strength. He never comes to the bench and says he's tired.”
The Wheat Kings had lost defenceman Mike Perovich to a broken arm late in the season. As a result, McCrimmon’s workload increased markedly.
In overtime, the Petes iced the puck. McCrimmon, who was labouring by now, was the first player back. But the linesmen waved off the icing, ruling that McCrimmon hadn’t tried hard enough to play the puck.
The Petes recovered it, moved it out front and scoring the winning goal.
"Everyone on this team showed guts, desire, pride and class,” McCrimmon said when it was over. "We might not have won it, but we proved ourselves. We wanted to win it so bad. We came back after losing our first two games — the guys kept working and working — and we ended up one goal away.”
Left-winger Brian Propp, having overheard McCrimmon, chimed in: "Brad showed more of those attributes than anyone else on this team. If every player was like Brad . . .”
Gary Green, then the Peterborough head coach, admitted later that he was quite aware of McCrimmon's predicament. Green just didn’t know if the Petes would ever be able to take advantage of it.
"I thought, near the end, their defence was finally starting to tire,” Green said. "I felt Brad McCrimmon was finally starting to have a tough time.
"He's an incredible defenceman, he's got an amazing amount of stamina . . . he played really well.”
That was Brad McCrimmon. He was all about hard work and team play. Suck it up and don’t complain. He lived life that way. He coached that way. It was the only way he knew.
McCrimmon was selected by the Boston Bruins with the 15th overall pick of the 1979 NHL draft. That, you may recall, was THE draft. The Bruins also held the eighth overall pick, with which they grabbed defenceman Ray Bourque.
McCrimmon had put up 98 points, including 24 goals, in 66 games with Brandon in 1978-79, while Bourque drew 93 points, 22 of them goals, in 63 games with the Verdun Black Hawks.
In Boston, Bourque would be the offensive guy. McCrimmon, then, would have to re-invent himself. And he did. He became a guy who would make the first pass and then stay at home.
He turned himself into a solid NHL defenceman. More importantly, he earned the respect of every teammate he ever had. Later, in Philadelphia, he and Mark Howe formed as strong a defensive pairing as the NHL has seen. McCrimmon also tutored the likes of Chris Pronger, Gary Suter and Niklas Lidstrom.
“He was my partner every game my first year,” Lidstrom told reporters yesterday. “He was that steady defenceman who stayed home all the time. He protected me in certain situations too when things got a little too heated. He was a great partner to have.”
Charron, his mind full of memories of Rachunek and McCrimmon yesterday, will be remembering another acquaintance as this week wears on. Ace Bailey, the Los Angeles Kings’ director of pro scouting, was on United Airlines Flight 175 when it crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Centre on Sept. 11, 2001.
“When you hear that it’s sad,” Charron said of Wednesday’s plane crash in Russia. “It was the same thing when Ace Bailey was part of . . . 9/11.
“He was my linemate with the (Washington) Capitals.”
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