On the day Brad McCrimmon was hired to coach Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, I sent him a congratulatory note and offered to put him in touch with others who'd coached in Russia before, including Dave King, with whom I co-authored a book about the subject. But McCrimmon was already ahead of me. He'd talked to King early on - along with two other Canadians that had subsequently coached in Russia (Barry Smith and Mike Krushelnyski) who had preceded him as a Red Wings assistant. I'd just watched the movie Gorky Park on TV and joked that when he wore one of those ubiquitous fur hats, he'd look more Russian than the Russians. McCrimmon quipped back: "Not only will I look more like the Russians in my hat, I will drink more vodka than them."
Nope, there was never any doubt that McCrimmon was going in just fine. For someone who described himself as just an old farmer from Plenty, Sask., he was one of most interesting characters I'd ever run across in 30-plus years of covering hockey, as close to a friend as you can have without stepping over that boundary that divides the press from the management team.
In his playing days, we'd sit together in the Calgary Flames dressing room long after practice ended, debate the merits of popular music (he was a died-in-the-wool Deadhead). A gruff, plain-spoken guy with a heart of gold. I last saw him in the flesh after the Detroit Red Wings, where he worked as an assistant coach, defeated the Phoenix Coyotes, where King worked as an assistant, in the opening round of the 2011 playoffs. His parents were there, in Phoenix on holiday, as was his brother Kelly. Brad introduced us and I started reminiscing about covering him in junior, when Dunc McCallum coached the Brandon Wheat Kings, and before he was chosen in that gold-plated 1979 draft class.
There were hundreds of funny stories about McCrimmon, but my favourite stems from the days when I was covering the Flames for the Calgary Herald and George Johnson was my opposite number at the Calgary Sun. The Sun's columnist at the time was a man named Larry Tucker. Once, Tucker quoted McCrimmon in a story - it was a typical, tell-it-like-it-is McCrimmon line - and then added, at the end, spoken like a man who spends the summer perched atop a tractor. It was a compliment in some ways, but McCrimmon was steamed. "Just let Tuck come out to Saskatchewan some day - I'll show him the meaning of hard work."
George and I just laughed our heads off. Naturally, at every opportunity, in every conversation with McCrimmon, one or the other of us would say: "Spoken like a man who spends his summers perched atop a tractor. That year, at Christmas, I proposed that we give McCrimmon a Christmas present - a Dinky Toy tractor, to remind him of his good friend Tuck. He accepted with good grace and a great laugh. McCrimmon was like that - an engaging guy, somebody you wanted to be around.
This past summer, McCrimmon spent a lot of time talking to King about Russia. McCrimmon had read King Of Russia, where King detailed his concern about Russian air travel. Whenever the team took commercial flights, King said there were no particular issues. But charters? They were a different story. The players on that Magnitogorsk team, which also included Igor Korolev, jokingly nicknamed their charter Pterodactyl Air, and King remembered Wednesday there were some harrowing moments.
"Charters were relatively new over there," King said. "A lot of companies were just starting up and they purchased these decrepit old airplanes. Honestly, there were a few times when I wasn't sure if we'd get off the ground. That was the only trepidation I had that year - because you had no control over the travel.
"The last time I talked to Brad, just before he went over, we jokingly talked about Pterodactyl Air - and that that had been my only concern when I was over there.
"Then this ...."