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‘Cowboy ethics’ comes to the aid of an Alberta family grappling with loss

Byron McCrimmon and his wife, Faye, look at a photograph of their late son Brad McCrimmon at their home in High River, Alta., on July 8, 2013. The basement of the McCrimmons’ home was flooded and extensively damaged, but the McCrimmons were able to save many photos and memorabilia.

KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

They took in the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede last year, two full days of it. Went to the Big Four building, watched the chuckwagon races. But they will not be going this week.

The McCrimmons, Faye and Byron, cannot because they're still trying to get through it all: the hell and the high water; the loss of a son, the near loss of a home. It has been calamity after tragedy. Enough to squeeze a gentle laugh from a woman who was evacuated from her High River home in the bucket of a front-end loader.

"It hasn't been easy," Faye McCrimmon said on Monday. "I've been joking it's getting harder not to feel sorry for myself."

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That the McCrimmons can manage even a semblance of humour is proof of their prairie-tested resilience. They are made of the hardiest stock. So was their son Brad.

He was the National Hockey League defenceman known as "Beast" or "Sarge" for his gung-ho attitude. He helped the Calgary Flames win the Stanley Cup in 1989. He became an NHL assistant coach, and figured the best way to become a head coach in North America was to take a job in Russia, with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv of the Kontinental Hockey League. Hone his chops.

On Sept. 7, 2011, Mr. McCrimmon and his players were heading to their first game in Minsk when their plane clipped a nearby tower and crashed into the banks of the Tunoshna River. Forty-three people were killed. Mr. McCrimmon was 52 years old.

There were multiple tributes throughout the hockey world. Mr. McCrimmon's wife, children, parents and brother Kelly, the general manager of the Western League's Brandon Wheat Kings, attended some and appreciated them all.

"It's nice to hear people speak so well of him," Ms. McCrimmon said of her oldest son. "We sure miss him. But we're coming out of it."

When last month's deluge transformed High River into the lost city of Alberta, a flood zone beyond recognition, Faye and Byron went into their basement and hauled up the boxes filled with their boys' hockey memories. They were simply too precious to lose.

Although they did not want to leave their home near the Highwood River, the McCrimmons realized they had little choice: the power had been cut off, night was falling. They could not cope in the dark. So they left by front-end loader. A week later, they were allowed back. The upstairs of their house was fine; the downstairs a disaster. Somehow, word of their plight spread quickly. One of the people who showed up to help was Jim Peplinski, a teammate of Brad's from the Stanley Cup champion Flames.

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"We loaded up the water pump and drove to High River to see how they were doing," said Mr. Peplinski, who lives and works in Calgary. "There were a lot of people cleaning up. … It's part of life out here – cowboy ethics. You help your neighbour."

The McCrimmons were amazed by what they witnessed: Neighbours coming back day after day to drag all the heavy stuff out of their basement: a piano, a couch, all water-logged beyond repair. The place is not what it once was, but it's home, with the walls of the upstairs den covered in photographs of Brad and Kelly playing hockey as kids, as teenagers, as young men. All preserved.

"I wasn't surprised when [Mr. Peplinski) showed up. [The Flames] are a good group of fellows," said Ms. McCrimmon. "There have been others helping in High River. There was one gal from Edmonton; she was an operating-room nurse. She wanted to help so she came down for a day. That's a long way to come just to help for one day."

Cowboy ethics. Come hell or high water. Call it what you will, the McCrimmons have chosen to take the good from the wretched and occasionally even laugh about it. It hasn't been easy, but it's the best they can do.

"You should have seen it," Ms. McCrimmon said, the drying fans in her home blowing in the background. "The water came down like a river, right down the street. It was a metre deep and running fast. No, we won't be going to the Stampede. There's so much to do here."

She paused for a moment.

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"I think there's nothing that's going to kill me now."

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About the Author
Sports writer

Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. He joined the Globe and Mail in 1997 with an extensive sports background having covered Stanley Cup finals, the Grey Cup, Summer and Winter Olympics, the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the 1989 Super Bowl riot and the 1989 earthquake World Series. More

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