If you wanted to get Brad McCrimmon stirred up, there were a few ways to do it.
One was to mention his native Saskatchewan. He once spoke of waking up early in the morning as a kid to feed the animals on his family farm when the temperature was minus-30. Weren't the animals in the barn, I wondered?
"Only the sick animals go in the barn," he said, as if I should have known.
All across Canada, he liked to point out, if you wanted to find a hard-working kid, he was probably from Saskatchewan. They were workers, he said. So was McCrimmon, who died Wednesday in a plane crash carrying the KHL team that he was coaching, Yaroslavl Lokomotiv.
As an assistant coach for four years with Atlanta -- when I got to know him as the team's beat reporter -- he worked endlessly in transforming a defense corps that was pedestrian at best into one that could compete for a playoff spot. As much as he worked, he always left time for a smile and a joke.
His persona was that of "The Beast" -- tough with players but also popular with them. He was a big personality who was impossible not to like.
After Detroit, where McCrimmon worked as an assistant for the previous three years, played in Atlanta last Nov. 24, it seemed like a procession of Thrashers players walked over to McCrimmon to say hello -- Eric Boulton and Toby Enstrom among them.
As straightforward as he was, there some things I could never figure out about him. Like how someone who was so colorful could button up as soon as you put a microphone or an audio recorder in front of him. I can't remember the particulars of the story any more, but one time he recounted a trip to the dentist that had me in stitches.
At the end of his telling, I made a comment about getting some of it on the record. Then he turned deadly serious and waved one of those oversized meaty fists with a suggestion that I not do so.
You didn't want to cross him, but he was also loyal and warm.
The day after I learned I was leaving the Thrashers beat, he was the first person I saw at the rink. "I hear we're losing our Dickie Dunn," he said, a humorous reference to the reporter who followed the Johnstown Chiefs in the film "Slap Shot." I hoped I was not such a bumbler or that I would print fictions.
Some of my favorite conversations with McCrimmon were diatribes about politics. Once I got him going on one of his conservative rants, I knew I was in for it. He wouldn't yield an inch, but it was always in good humor.
McCrimmon might not have had much formal education, but he was as well-versed on politics as anyone. He was a huge critic of the Canadian government's socialized medicine -- and to back it up he had a story about coaching the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL.
One of his players cracked his head on the ice during a game and needed neurosurgery. There were only two neurosurgeons in the province -- which he pointed out was twice the size of Texas -- and only by chance was his player's life saved because they happened to be playing in a city where one of them was working and on-call. He grew angry with genuine emotion at the thought of a young player almost dying a needless death.
Along with a thirst for politics, he also was a history buff. On a team bus ride from Boston's TD Garden to the team hotel, I heard him go into depth to tell players about some tidbits of local history.
Whether it was politics, history or hockey, he loved to talk. He told stories about how during his career, NHL rosters were smaller, which meant that as a top-pair defenseman he often played more than half the game. He would pantomime walking into the locker room red-faced and exhausted to plop himself on a table to rest during intermission.
A lot of people might not know it, but McCrimmon ranks eighth all-time in plus/minus at plus-444 and in 1985-86 he finished plus-83 with the Philadelphia Flyers. High-scoring defensemen have all the flash and their gaudy numbers get the headlines, but defensive defensemen help teams win. McCrimmon was a winner -- as was the case when he won the Stanley Cup with Calgary in 1989 and when his 1986-87 Flyers team took an Edmonton dynasty to the seventh game of Cup final before succumbing.
It was the details of the defensive game that he imparted on players as a coach and made them better.
He also was immensely proud of his junior career with the Brandon Wheat Kings and how his 1978-79 team was one of the best of all time -- it included future NHLers Brian Propp (his future teammate on the Flyers) and Laurie Boschman.
Another player on that team was his younger brother Kelly, the current general manager of the Wheat Kings. Upon hearing that Kelly went to the University of Michigan, I once joked with Brad that his brother must have gotten all the brains. I expected a barb in return -- but instead, proud of his brother, he agreed.
With his moving on to Detroit, I would catch up with him once or twice a year when the Red Wings would visit Central Division rival Nashville. With a smile, he told me how his daughter was going to nursing school back in Michigan. I was disappointed that I wouldn't get to see him in the coming season when he and the Red Wings parted ways this past spring.
I was only slightly surprised when he took the job in the KHL because I knew after coaching in Germany during the 2004-05 work stoppage that he talked about how much he loved the experience and wanted to go back. He didn't because of his family, but his kids were growing older.
I can only imagine how much they and his wife will miss him.