There are moments in life when you can tell something is wrong. It is a horrible, sinking feeling. Byron McCrimmon had that feeling on Sept. 7, 2011 as he golfed in Scotland.
"The last six or seven holes I played in that game, I wasn't in the game and I told the other three guys I was golfing with, 'I don't know what's going on, but I'm just completely out of this,' and that was when the accident happened," a glassy-eyed McCrimmon recalled during a trip to Russia last month.
When McCrimmon got back to his hotel that day there was a message from his youngest son Kelly. It was the worst news imaginable. Brad McCrimmon, Byron's eldest son, had died in a plane crash. He was one of 44 souls to perish when the plane carrying the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, a KHL team, went down on takeoff.
"There's sort of a standing joke in Russia about airplanes and I just sort of felt like charters should be different and none of us gave it a second thought," said McCrimmon. "You joked about it, but it just didn't seem like that could happen."
ROAD TO RUSSIA
Growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan, Byron could always tell his son was destined to play in the NHL.
"He had passion and he had a passion that he was going to play in the NHL right from three or four years-old," he explained. "Honestly, when he was about seven or eight is when I knew. He had the desire."
And sure enough McCrimmon, a hard-nosed defenceman, played 18 NHL seasons (1,222 career games) winning a Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames in 1989. He also played for the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, Detroit Red Wings, Hartford Whalers and Phoenix Coyotes.
Then came coaching.
"He always asked me questions," said Byron. "You could tell he was going to be a coach, because he always had to have a reason for this or that."
During his playing days there were signs McCrimmon would go into coaching. He mentored youngsters like Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis helping them grow into superstars.
After retiring, McCrimmon was an assistant with four NHL teams – the New York Islanders, Flames, Atlanta Thrashers and Wings – and also head coach of the WHL's Saskatoon Blades for two seasons.
Then, following the 2011 season, he parted ways with the Wings and accepted the Lokomotiv job. He had visited Yaroslavl before having been part of the coaching staff that led Canada to an under-18 title in the city in 2003. Byron remembers that his son was impressed by the quality of the new arena, which had just opened there.
But there were other reasons why Brad McCrimmon decided to take the path less travelled.
"He went through two lockouts and the second one he coached in Germany [for the Frankfurt Lions] and he didn't want to go through another lockout," said Byron. "He figured this year there would be a lockout. He got a chance to be a head coach in the KHL and he wanted to prove he was capable of being a NHL head coach."
Shortly before his death, Brad told his dad the Lokomotiv were close to acquiring a second-line centre that would have made them favourites for the title.
"They could have won the championship last year," Byron said wistfully.
It was a difficult decision for Byron McCrimmon, but in the end it was clear what he had to do. He accepted Hockey Canada's invitation to Yaroslavl last month. The nation's junior team was playing a series of exhibition games against the Russians and two of the games would be played in Yaroslavl. Byron had never been to the city where his son died. This was a chance to go and have the support of an entire team behind him.
"I wanted to come and see for myself where Brad came to and he was so happy here, because we talked [via video on our computers] every day and he was happy.
"I guess, I sort of wanted closure."
McCrimmon visited the crash site on the banks of the Volga River. He took a tour of the cemetery where 14 members of the Lokomotiv organization are buried and attended a memorial outside Arena 2000 where the team plays its home games. He went to a restaurant Brad would go to unwind after a long day at the rink. He visited with the people who knew his son the best in Russia.
"I had some tough places. I have lots of tough places. While I was going through the rink a lady came up to me and said, 'I got to go get you something,' and she came back and gave me this," McCrimmon said holding up a silver whistle.
"This is Brad's whistle that she found in the river."
Byron gave the whistle to Brad's 15-year-old son Liam. But that was not the only surprise during the journey.
"There's two trophy cases in the arena," he said. "There's a Cup in the end of one that we went by and this one guy's with us and he said, 'That's Brad's Cup,' and I wasn't sure if I heard what he said. I went and looked at the date on it and it was dated August of last year. They have a pre-season tournament that they happened to win and he said, 'That cup stays there permanently, it will never be removed.' They're keeping the original there."
Everywhere he went in Yaroslavl, Byron was welcomed with open arms.
"They're really happy I came," he said, choking back tears. "Every one of them telling me that they're very honoured I came. Brad was a special person and they all liked him."
PAIN NEVER GOES AWAY
Byron used to speak to Brad every day when he was alive. He still does. He talks to a picture of his son. And he knows the pain will never go away. A parent never gets over the loss of a child.
But after travelling halfway around the world and shedding many tears McCrimon found some solace in the fact his son's legacy is in good hands.
"He was just a down-to-earth person. The trainers were as important to him as the stars. He treated everybody equal. We did an interview with a Russian reporter and a girl came over afterwards and said how much she liked our son. She said, 'One thing we noticed here, it was in the bowling alley restaurant, when they came he ate with the players and everything, he would sit with every player and talk and have fun.' She said that doesn't happen in Russia.'
"That's the way he was. He was just good to everybody."