The Defender

Shocking news this morning: the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team, including coaching staff, were killed this morning in a plane crash in central Russia. Among those who perished was Brad McCrimmon, the team’s head coach.

McCrimmon was one of my favorite players growing up. Hailing from Dodsland, SK, less than an hour from where I came from, he was a rough-and-tough defenseman who went from being a local star to stand-out junior player with the Brandon Wheat Kings to one of the most dependable defensive defensemen the NHL ever had.

McCrimmon was drafted by Boston in the first round of the NHL draft in the legendary class of 1979. Some might consider a 15th overall pick to be a bit high for a defensive defenseman, but Allan Maki gives us a hint of why the Bruins took a chance on him:

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.”

Think about that for a second. I too once played an entire game save for two minutes in the box. I was eight years old and we only had six skaters on the team. McCrimmon did it in the top junior tournament in the world. Jesus.

While he was known for his offensive flair in junior, he quickly realized his calling as a solid, stay-at-home defensemen with the Bruins. Three seasons later, he was with the Philadelphia Flyers and, along with Mark Howe, became part of the most effective defensive partnerships the game has ever known.

How effective was he? In 1985-86, McCrimmon scored an incredible +83 for the season, bested only by Howe’s +85. Two years later, McCrimmon led the league in plus/minus (+48) while with the Flames. In 18 seasons, he was a minus player only twice: a -3 as a rookie with Boston and a -7 with the lowly 1993-94 Hartford Whalers. That’s called consistency, people.

Perhaps his most notable legacy as a player came during his time with the Detroit Red Wings. It was there where McCrimmon mentored a young defensive prospect named Nicklas Lidstrom. While the talented Swede had all the tools available to become one of the greatest defensemen in the game, it was his time with McCrimmon during those impressionable early years which arguably taught the kid how to play proper defense. Who knows how many other talented young players could have benefited from McCrimmon’s tutelage?

I was fortunate enough to have met him once. I was 13 years old in the summer of 1989, and he was showing off the Stanley Cup he had just won with Calgary that spring. Dad took me, my brother, and a couple of young kids from town (one of whom would end up winning the Memorial Cup a number of years later) to Plenty to see the Cup and meet the man himself. I remember shaking his huge hands and noticed that his legs were as big as the cup itself. He said a few nice words to us and posed for a picture, which was mailed out to us a few weeks later. We then got to touch the silver mug and study the names of hockey’s glorious past. I must have kissed it, but I didn’t dare try to lift it up. It was the highlight of my youth, a day I’ve never forgotten.

I know people from west-central Saskatchewan are all feeling this today. Hockey was part of all of us. We never had any stars come from out our way, but the guys we did have — McCrimmon, Laurie Boschman, Bobby Bourne, Dave Lewis — were tough character players. They earned our respect, and we were proud to call them our own. And McCrimmon was the best of them.

Rest in peace, Beast.

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