Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets hit hard by tragedy

Meech, Slater, Hnidy pay tribute to McCrimmon, a trusted mentor

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The NHL family is a closely knit collection of players and coaches, trainers and equipment types, front-office secretaries and scouts.

And so when a plane carrying the Kontinental Hockey League team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl goes down in western Russia, the fallout from the crash is still felt in thousands of kilometres away in Winnipeg.

Even moreso when one of the 43 victims is someone like Brad McCrimmon, a player and coach with deep ties to the Brandon Wheat Kings and the former Atlanta Thrashers.

"It's definitely sad news," said Jets centre Jim Slater following an informal on-ice session with teammates and local pros at the MTS Iceplex. "Everyone knows somebody in the hockey community, it's a small world. It's part of our job, we're on planes almost every day and when something like that happens, it really opens your eyes. I feel bad for all the families. It's a tough day for the hockey community.

"Everyone knows (McCrimmon) as 'The Beast.' He was one of the best men I've ever been around. He was just a fabulous man and I'm sure every player you talk to that knew him only has the best things to say about him. It's tragic what happened to him and to that whole team. It's very, very sad."

"Brad was one of my first coaches when I came into the league and he was kind of a mentor for the younger guys," added Bryan Little. "The support he had for me my first couple of years... whenever I got frustrated he was a guy who came and talked to me to keep me level-headed and keep me focused. He could tell you a story to make you feel better."

McCrimmon spent four years in the Thrashers' organization (2003-08) as an assistant coach before moving on to the Detroit Red Wings.

He left the Wings this spring for the chance to be a head coach, a role he hasn't held since leading the Saskatoon Blades in 1999-2000.

Jets' defenceman Derek Meech worked with McCrimmon during his days in Detroit and remembers a coach who was both personable and an effective communicator.

"He was great with me and he was great with everyone that came around him," said Meech. "He was unbelievable at taking time to spend time with everybody. He definitely gave me a lot of insight, a lot of tips and helped with my confidence. He was a players' coach, always telling stories... it's just a sad time. There's not much to say."

The crash was one of the worst-ever involving a sports team and also took the lives of several European stars and former NHLers, including Pavol Demitra, Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek, Karlis Skrastins and Jan Marek.

The loss of friends and former teammates hit longtime veteran NHL defenceman Shane Hnidy hard, especially in a summer when the hockey world has also had to deal with the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. What made this latest tragedy especially eerie was this: Hnidy was considering playing in the KHL this season before opting to retire and slip into the broadcast booth as the colour analyst for Jets' games on Sports Radio 1290.

"It's weird," said Hnidy, "I was just talking to my wife and I'm not sure, but (Lokomotiv) might have been one of the teams I was considered going over to play with. It's terrible... I really feel for all the families. It's just been a sickening summer with tragedy after tragedy for the NHL.

"Brad was my D coach the two years I played in Atlanta and he was very instrumental in my career and helping my game. He was an amazing coach and person. You won't find a more well-liked coach. He brought attitude and passion to the game. We were very close with him, knew his family. My heart goes out to all of them.

"It affects everyone in hockey, whether you were playing in the minors or in the NHL. Everyone in the hockey world can relate to this tragedy in some way and it's just horrible." Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2011 C2

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