- Craig Custance
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NORTHVILLE, Mich. -- There's no way he would have approved. No way. Brad McCrimmon was many things, as reliable a defenseman as there was in hockey during his playing days. A stern, yet encouraging, coach who constantly looked for ways to improve every player on his team.
But first and foremost, he was a dad. A protective one.
When it came to his stance on tattoos, he made it abundantly clear to his kids: They weren't allowed. His rule even came with a threat.
If his teenage daughter Carlin ever got a tattoo, he promised that he was getting a bigger one. He threatened to shave his head, get a giant bald eagle tattooed on his back, with the eagle's head extending onto his shaved head where huge talons would hold a fish spilling blood and guts all over. It was quite the picture.
Last week, Carlin got a tattoo.
Pulling up the side of her shirt, she reveals the black ink of a phrase written in Russian. Translated, it says "Our team. Forever."
It was a phrase she saw everywhere when she went to Yaroslavl, Russia, last fall for the first time after her father's death. It was a phrase that never left her consciousness.
"I said, 'That's what I'm getting.' And now, a year later, it was still stuck with me. I figured it was time," she said Monday, two days before leaving for Russia to honor the one-year anniversary of her father's death. "Personally, for me, it kind of felt like a step forward. Like, 'OK, here I am a year later. I'm doing everything my dad would want me to do. I'm back in school. I'm still alive and breathing, which at times didn't feel like we were going to be. It felt good in that way to get it."
"But he would kill me," she said, smiling. "Absolutely."
It's hard to believe it's been one year. One year since the hockey world was crushed by the devastating news that the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team plane had crashed shortly after takeoff on its way to play its first game of the KHL season. Forty-four of the 45 people on board the plane died. The lone survivor was the flight engineer.
One year since a tragedy permanently connected a Russian hockey team with its first-year head coach, proudly raised on a family farm in Plenty, Saskatchewan.
A coach who couldn't wait to lead his group to success in the KHL after spending years as an assistant coach in the NHL.
On the morning of Sept 7, 2011, he called home to Michigan like he did every day. The promise of a new season had him energized.
"He was so excited," his wife, Maureen, said. "'It's about [expletive] time we're getting this season started,' [he said.] I said, 'Call me when you get there.' I've been saying that to him for 100 years. He always did."
It's been a year, and the details of those last conversations haven't faded. They never will. For Carlin, it was a conversation on Skype. She had just moved into her new apartment by Wayne State University, where she's attending college. Before McCrimmon left for Russia, they shopped at Ikea together to furnish the place.
When the furniture was assembled, he wasn't satisfied just to hear about it. He requested a Skype tour from Russia. Carlin walked around her apartment, showing him her bed, her kitchen table, her living room. Everything they had picked out together.
"He goes, 'It looks really great. 'Where the [expletive] are you going to do your homework?'" Carlin said. "He was like, 'You need a desk. You need to be organized.' He was so about school, so about organization and whatever. That was the last time I talked to him. That day."
The McCrimmon family is back in Russia, the only place they wanted to be when the anniversary came. The past 12 months have brought close friendships with the families of those who died in the crash, and those bonds provide a comfort that can't be found stateside.
McCrimmon won a Stanley Cup in 1989, playing for the Calgary Flames. He partnered with Mark Howe to form one of the best defensive pairings of the 1980s in Philadelphia. He played his 1,000th game with the Detroit Red Wings.
But the connection is now strongest with Lokomotiv. It's the Lokomotiv team flag that flies under the American flag out front of the McCrimmon's new home here. It's a Lokomotiv T-shirt that McCrimmon's son Liam wore to a recent Windsor Spitfires game. And of course, it's a tribute to Lokomotiv that is permanently drawn on Carlin's side.
"He loved them," Carlin said of the bond that immediately formed between the players and their new coach. "Oh, my God, so quickly. That's the one thing about going over there that I'm excited for Liam to see. When I was there, I came home with a strange closure. I saw this city he talked about and loved and spoke so highly of. I would see little things and say, 'You know what? Dad definitely loved that.'"
The McCrimmon family has been moved by the constant support it has received from the people of Yaroslavl, but still, there were nerves before the return to Russia. There are the darker memories of the last trip, 40 days after the crash when Maureen and Carlin went to an investigator's office to recover personal items found at the crash site.
The memory of the cramped stairs that took them to a basement that felt like a bomb shelter. A room with a dirt floor that contained mud-covered laptops and burlap sacks full of clothes. Sacks that Carlin ripped through just to find anything left of her father's belongings.
"I just wanted to see something. I wanted that closure for myself that he was there, that he's not on vacation," she said. "From day one, I've always accepted the fact that this is what happened and he's gone and this is real life. But I wanted to see it."
When she spotted a Calgary Flames toiletry bag, she immediately knew it was his. To prove it, she was able to recite exactly what it contained, right down to the bottle of cologne she bought him every Christmas.
When she struggled to find more personal items, an investigator brought out a bag with the No. 4 on it in Russian. McCrimmon's was the fourth body recovered from the wreck. In that bag, they found the jeans he always wore. They found his Reebok polo shirt. They found a belt.
Instead of comfort, it was an ugly reminder. They left most of it there.
Now, back in Michigan there are a few things recovered and saved. Two Dell laptaps, cracked and covered in mud. McCrimmon's wallet, still holding the money and identification cards he left his apartment with that morning. A broken pen sits in a plastic bag next to the Flames bag still filled with shaving cream, a toothbrush, a Sharpie, aftershave.
The mud has long dried, but even after one year, the smell of jet fuel is strong.
One year later, none of it has faded away. Not the pain, none of the memories. Not even the smell.
There's a historic home in Northville that was built in 1843. McCrimmon loved it. He'd drive by it on the way back to the house the family was renting and say, "A guy should buy that property."
He'd make excuses just to pass it and then sit out front admiring the old house. His kids would tease him that the owners might accuse him of stalking, so he'd finally move on to Starbucks or what other destination he invented to get a look at it.
The house has since been completely renovated, a spectacular blue mix of history and modern convenience that makes it impossible to miss when driving through Northville. Earlier this summer, it went on the market, and there was no hesitation. Maureen bought it. For the kids, for herself. For Brad.
Their old house was starting to suffocate the family. Too many memories. Every day for a month, the family's golden retriever walked to the bottom of the driveway and waited. The man called Beast by his friends called this dog his own majestic beast, and Finnegan's patience seemed endless.
"Daddy's not coming home," Maureen would say.
They left that house.
They're starting fresh in this old homestead. There's still unpacking to be done and furniture to move in, but McCrimmon's presence is everywhere. A picture in front of the fireplace. Framed jerseys in an office. A poem he always kept nearby, hung on a wall. A wife who shares his determination to put the family first and make sure the kids are always taken care of. A daughter with his eyes and incredible ability to tell a story. A son who shares his passion for hockey and a deep loyalty for friends and teammates.
Those teammates and the players whose lives McCrimmon changed have helped make this all a little bit easier. As Sept. 7 crept closer, the texts to Maureen became more frequent, quick notes from the hockey community to remind her that she's not alone. There's support nearby from the Red Wings in the presence of the Ilitch family, Ken Holland and Jim Nill, who have all made it clear that they're available, any time. The McCrimmons have formed a bond with the family of the late Bob Probert, with each helping the other move forward.
McCrimmon's impact on the world of hockey was so wide-reaching that his family won't ever be alone.
That doesn't always dull the pain.
In front of their beautiful home is a giant porch overlooking the street. Maureen looks at it and can't help but imagine how much Brad would have enjoyed sitting there, sipping Grey Goose and watching a summer parade go by.
And the large kitchen table is rarely used, with family dinners too painful a reminder of who is missing. Instead, they eat at the counter.
"You just don't enjoy it. You just miss him too much. You want him to be there with you. That's hard," Maureen said. "Your outlook changes on life after you lose somebody. Lots of things he just took for granted we would do. Always waiting for the right time to do something. ... And so now, I don't."