In Saskatchewan's tight-knit hockey community, where everyone seemingly knows a pro player personally, the tragedies keep hitting like punches to the heart.
Brad McCrimmon, a farmer's kid from Plenty, Sask., who played defence for 18 seasons with six NHL teams, died in a plane crash this week and, it is hoped, that ends a horrific off-season that also included the deaths of Wade Belak, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard, other former NHLers with strong Saskatchewan ties.
McCrimmon, who coached the WHL's Saskatoon Blades from 1998-2000, was starting his first job as head coach of a professional team when a chartered Russian jet crashed while attempting to take Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to its opening game of the Continental Hockey League season.
"I really got to know Brad years ago when we taught hockey schools in Swift Current for a number of summers, the Stan Dunn/Ron Munro Hockey School," said Lorne Molleken, a former Chicago Blackhawks head coach who grew up in Regina and now serves as the Blades' head coach and general manager.
"It's unbelievable. Hard to believe. I can remember this summer when Brad stepped down in Detroit [as a Red Wings assistant coach]and everybody thought he was going to get a head job right away. Next thing you know he's on his way over to Russia."
Molleken coached Belak for three-plus seasons with the Blades, plus he knew Boogaard, who was friends with his nephew, Dustin Molleken.
"Saskatchewan kids are brought up knowing they have to work hard for everything and to do whatever's necessary to succeed," Lorne Molleken said. "It's the Saskatchewan way."
McCrimmon played minor hockey in Saskatchewan before a stellar major-junior career with the Brandon Wheat Kings. His younger brother, Kelly, is now the owner/manager of the Wheat Kings.
"When Beast [McCrimmon's nickname]coached the Blades he would call and we would talk all the time," said Kelly McClintock, general manager of the Saskatchewan Hockey Association. "He wouldn't just talk about the Blades. He would talk about the minor hockey program in Plenty, about the parents he was dealing with, about other hockey associations and the players he was watching around the province.
"I knew Rick Rypien, too. I served as a chapel leader and when his girlfriend passed away I knew it really affected him. I didn't know Derek Boogaard, but I knew his family from dealings with his brother, Aaron, when he was playing hockey. And I dealt with Barry Belak in North Battleford about hockey events up there, so there's a connection with Wade Belak, too. This is a big province, a big area, with only a million people, but it's bound together by lots of things, including its hockey players."
According to the Hockey-reference.com website, 483 Saskatchewan-born players have played in the NHL, including 47 last season. That's an annual rate of 4.6 NHLers per 100,000 people, more than any province, state or country.
While McCrimmon was known as a solid, defensive player before retiring in 1997 to begin a coaching career that led him to four NHL teams as an assistant during 12 seasons, the other three players were known more as enforcers.
Wade Belak was born in Saskatoon but his family hailed from North Battleford. He played for the Blades and, beginning in 1998, four NHL teams before retiring from the Nashville Predators following last season. He died Aug. 31 in Toronto, reportedly from a suicide after struggles with depression.
Rypien was an Alberta native who served as a popular captain of the WHL's Regina Pats. His pro career was divided between the AHL's Manitoba Moose and NHL's Vancouver Canucks. Rypien, who had taken leaves to deal with depression, signed with the Winnipeg Jets before committing suicide Aug. 15 in Crowsnest Pass, Alta.
Boogaard, who was born in Saskatoon and raised in Regina, also spent a short stint with the Pats before becoming one of the NHL's most notorious fighters through five seasons with the Minnesota Wild and one with the New York Rangers. Boogaard died May 13 in Minneapolis after accidentally consuming a lethal mixture of alcohol and drugs.
Special to The Globe and Mail