Sports Hockey

McCrimmon family finds closure in Yaroslavl

YAROSLAVL, Russia - 

Imagine visiting the site where your son died in a plane crash.

Difficult to go through? Certainly.

Worth it? Definitely.

Byron McCrimmon's son, Brad, was among the 44 people, including 36 players and coaches for the KHL team Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, who died as the result of a plane crash one year ago.

The elder McCrimmon accepted an invitation from Hockey Canada to travel to Russia in August with a junior team that was taking part in a series of games there.

"I've felt more at peace," said Byron McCrimmon, who lives in High River, Alta., south of Calgary. "It was something I had to see myself.

"When I was there, I thought of all the good times, more than the bad times. That's the way you've got to look at it. Try to remember all the good."

The city of Yaroslavl, along with the hockey world, will remember Friday on the one-year anniversary of the disaster.

Brad McCrimmon, 52, was a former NHL star and long-time assistant coach who decided to join the KHL team for the opportunity to become a head coach. He was the lone Canadian victim of the crash.

Former NHLers Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins and Josef Vasicek also died.

Byron McCrimmon and his wife, Faye, won't be among those in attendance Friday. However, members of the Canadian team that played the Soviet Union in 1972 will be in Yaroslavl. They are in Russia for the 40th anniversary of the historic series. More recently retired NHLers, among them Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, also will attend the ceremony and will play an exhibition game against a collection of retired Russian stars.

Byron McCrimmon said visitors will be amazed at how much the Lokomotiv team meant to the city of 800,000, a couple of hours northeast of Moscow.

"They're very proud of their hockey team," he said. "Everybody I met said they were honoured I came and it does make you feel welcome."

The anniversary will be difficult for the McCrimmon family.

"The first Christmas, first birthday, Father's Day, those memorable days are tough," said Kelly McCrimmon, Brad's younger brother who is owner and general manager of the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings. "I'm sure it's going to be a difficult day for all of our family, and the families of all the people in the crash.

"But it's another step in the process that you go through.

"There are so many times I think of Brad. Not only because he was my brother and we were as close as we were, but the fact we both worked in hockey meant there were lots of situations where it would be an automatic phone call to talk about the news of the day.

"By habit, you start to make that call before you catch yourself."

McCrimmon's impact on the hockey world extends far and wide, having played for the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, Calgary Flames, Detroit Red Wings, Hartford Whalers and Phoenix Coyotes during his 18-year playing career, retiring in 1997. He then worked as an assistant coach with the New York Islanders, Calgary, Atlanta Thrashers and Detroit.

In Atlanta, McCrimmon worked three-plus seasons with new Flames coach Bob Hartley. In fact, Hartley hired McCrimmon immediately after his first interview in 2004.

Hartley coached in Switzerland last season, but even there he felt McCrimmon's presence.

Hartley noticed a photo of the Lokomotiv team at a hotel where he and his players were staying. He learned that the Russian team had stayed there during its pre-season training.

"I said to the lady at reception, 'I know this guy' and she said, 'Oh, you know Brad.' That brought tears to my eyes," Hartley said. "He was there for a week and the lady at the front desk knew him as Brad.

"I could feel Brad was right there. Every time I would walk in or walk out of the hotel, I would stop at the picture."

Don't let that tough-guy "Sarge" nickname fool you. McCrimmon's real personality was more about laughter, loving life and doing what he could to make everybody happy.

"It is a source of pride people think of Brad that way, but it's not a surprise," his father said. "We knew him and knew everybody liked him, because he was a straight shooter and felt everybody was equal."

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