Theirs was a relationship began 30 years ago in the dressing room at Joe Louis Arena – one, a grizzled veteran of the NHL battles, a farm boy from Saskatchewan; the other, a slick Swede from Vasteras who was about to embark on a career as the best defenseman of his generation.
In the eyes of outsiders, it was easy to view Brad McCrimmon and Nicklas Lidstrom as a hockey version of the Odd Couple. In the eyes of Lidstrom, his vision of the partnership was more awed than odd.
“He was my (defensive) partner my first year over here, and he was my roommate, too, so I got to know him really well,” Lidstrom recalled of McCrimmon.
Killed In Crash
It was 10 years ago today that McCrimmon was among 44 who died when the plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club crashed shortly after takeoff. The team was embarking on a road trip to what would’ve been their 2010-11 KHL season opener.
The list of the dead read like a who’s who of NHLers – 1999-2000 Lady Byng Trophy winner Pavol Demitra was killed, as was Karlis Skrastins, who’d set an NHL record of 495 consecutive games played by a defenseman. Igor Korolev, Alexander Karpovtsev, Karel Rachunek and Josef Vasicek were also among the dead.
Also killed were ex-Red Wings McCrimmon, defenseman Ruslan Salei and 2000 Detroit draft pick Stefan Liv.
McCrimmon, who’d been an assistant coach with the Red Wings from 2008-11, moved to Yaroslavl to take over as coach of the club that season.
“He wanted to be a head coach,” Lidstrom said. “He wanted to see what it would be like, being a head coach in Russia.”
Learning The Ropes
The bond between Lidstrom and McCrimmon and the appreciation Lidstrom felt for the ways in which McCrimmon showed him the ropes as an NHL rookie in 1991 were apparent when we worked together on Lidstrom’s book The Pursuit of Perfection.
“Listen kid, this is how it works,” Lidstrom remembered McCrimmon telling him time and again during that first NHL season. “I learned a lot from him.”
Players talk often about the little things they must comprehend when entering the NHL life. Lidstrom opened a window into what were some of those little things that McCrimmon taught him. Stuff like how to make the careful climb to the ice at venerable Chicago Stadium. That’s where Lidstrom made his NHL debut.
Over the years, several players took unflattering tumbles while navigating up the stairs from the visitor’s dressing room to the ice surface.
McCrimmon ensured that his new D partner wouldn’t be among them.
“He told me it was 18 steps,” Lidstrom remembered.
Another element of the pro hockey life that Lidstrom learned from McCrimmon was the nuance of the pre-game nap.
“He wanted it really cold,” Lidstrom said. Even during winter road trips to the Canadian prairies, McCrimmon insisted on keeping a window open in their hotel room.
“One time in Edmonton, it started to snow,” Lidstrom said. “I woke up with snow in the room. Part of our hotel room was covered in white.”
A Close Bond
Off the ice, the two lived in the same area, so they car pooled to games. Lidstrom’s wife Annika and McCrimmon’s wife Maureen also formed a friendship.
You couldn’t meet McCrimmon, and not like him. He was always smiling, ever upbeat, and carried himself with an everyman effervescence that never suggested he’d ever been an NHL star.
McCrimmon wouldn’t even wear his 1988-89 Calgary Flames Stanley Cup ring. He didn’t like to be adorned in jewelery. Instead, he had it put on a chain so his wife could wear it as a necklace.
In Philadelphia, Flyers teammates nicknamed him Beast. It had nothing to do with his personality, and everything to do with his resemblance to a Muppets character of the same name.
“Brad was always happy, always looking at things the positive way,” Lidstrom said. “He was always trying to encourage players when things weren’t going their way.
“He helped me out a lot my first year in the league.”