CALGARY - Brad McCrimmon's tough exterior earned him the nickname "Beast," but under that shell was a keen, confident hockey mind that helped dozens of players and teammates.
McCrimmon died Wednesday in a Russian plane crash that killed 36 members of the hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and 43 people in total. The 52-year-old from Plenty, Sask., was named head coach of the KHL team in May.
There are few people in the North American hockey world McCrimmon didn't come in contact with after 18 years as a defenceman in the NHL and another 14 as a coach at different levels in the game.
"Brad McCrimmon alone would have affected, in a positive way, thousands of people, from the cities that he lived in. . . players, other coaches, management, staff, everybody," former Calgary Flames teammate Perry Berezan said Wednesday. "He was such a personable guy and a guy you wanted to listen to on a regular basis."
Berezan was McCrimmon's roommate on the road during their time together in Calgary. Berezan described McCrimmon a leader on the team and a mentor to younger players.
"He was a big, barrel-chested man, a hairy man who told it like is, played hard, really hard and always just an honest on the ice off the ice kind of guy that you really respected," Berezan said. "The world doesn't have many people like Brad.
"I hadn't seen him very much over the past bunch of years and I'm really missing him right now because you know guys like that are pretty special."
McCrimmon approached playing and coaching with a crusty candour that Jim Peplinski, another Flame teammate, appreciated.
"Coarse, frank, blunt, but he was easy to understand," Peplinski said. "As soon as you could pierce that rough exterior there was a soft side that would go to war with you. We always called him Beast because he was so gruff.
"Beast was a quiet individual who in my opinion had a very deep and thorough understanding of the game, one that in initial conversations with him sometimes would be hidden. I took great pride and pleasure and a lot of appreciation in talking to Brad about parts of the game that he saw in a way that I certainly didn't and many others didn't."
Gary Suter was of the players McCrimmon mentored with the Flames and Suter called him "Sarge" in addition to his established nickname. Peplinski recalled McCrimmon receiving a sergeant's uniform as a gag gift at a team Christmas party and wearing it.
"We would laugh. We're not laughing now, but our memories are certainly full of laughter," Peplinski said.
While McCrimmon played for six different NHL teams and served as an assistant coach on four clubs, the Calgary Flames felt his loss deeply Wednesday. McCrimmon helped the Flames win their one and only Stanley Cup in 1989 and he returned to the team as an assistant coach from 2000 to 2002.
"It's a real hard hit, particularly for someone who was stunning a personality," Flames president Ken King said. "(He was) a guy who tried to hide his superb intellect and his great wit behind being a farmer from Saskatchewan, but he didn't do a very good job of hiding it because he was a real soldier, an awesome guy and I can't tell you how much he'll be missed."
From the Detroit Red Wings to the Philadelphia Flyers to the Western Hockey League, where he also coached and played, McCrimmon's death reverberated.
"Brad was one of the toughest defenceman to ever wear the black and orange," Flyers owner Ed Snider recalled in a statement.
"Off the ice, Brad was a true gentleman. A kind, caring and wonderful human being," he added.
Red Wings defenceman Nick Lidstrom was McCrimmon's defence partner during his rookie season in 1991-92.
“He was more of a stay-at-home defenceman, letting me get involved with the offence,” Lidstrom told reporters in Detroit. “He also protected me at certain times when things got heated.”
McCrimmon compiled 81 goals, 322 assists and 1,416 penalty minutes in 1,222 NHL games. His plus-minus of plus-444 ranks 10th all-time, according to hockey-reference.com, and the nine players ranked ahead of him are all in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
McCrimmon spent the last three NHL seasons as an assistant coach with the Red Wings. He left the organization when his contract expired to take his first head coaching job in professional hockey with Lokomotiv.
"Beast was a confident guy and he would look at this as a challenge," Peplinski said. "I remember when I heard Sarge had gone over there I thought 'The Russians better be careful. This will be good for them.'
"Lots of confidence in himself, an independent thinker and a person that would have improved the game in Russia and brought his own unique skill set and abilities to that organization."
Born in Dodsland, Sask., McCrimmon grew up in Plenty, west of Saskatoon, and played his junior hockey with the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings. McCrimmon's brother Kelly is the current owner and general manager of the Wheat Kings.
McCrimmon was drafted 15th overall by the Boston Bruins in 1979 and spent three seasons there, followed by five with Philadelphia before he was dealt to the Flames. McCrimmon went on to play for Detroit, the Hartford Whalers and Phoenix Coyotes before retiring in 1997.
McCrimmon started his coaching career as an assistant with the New York Islanders before returning to the WHL to coach the Saskatoon Blades. He headed back to the NHL to coach with Calgary, the Atlanta Thrashers and Detroit.
McCrimmon and his family lived in Northville, Mich. McCrimmon is survived by his wife Maureen and children Carlin and Liam.