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'I'm going to miss him'

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Brad McCrimmon and Mark Howe played together in Philadelphia before being reunited in Detroit.
EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s been a year since a three-engine, mid-range passenger jet carrying a professional Russian hockey team, including three former Red Wings – Brad McCrimmon, Ruslan Salei and Stefan Liv – crashed before it could gain altitude as it headed for the KHL season-opener in Minsk. Crash investigators believe the plane ran off the runway and never got enough lift before striking a tower mast, catching fire and crashing into a riverbank more than a mile from the airport in western Russia.

Back in the United States, Mark Howe was still in the midst of riding an incredible high last September. A few months earlier, he had learned of his pending induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, something he had hoped to share with his close friend and first defensive partner in the NHL. Howe called McCrimmon to tell him the news and to invite him to the induction ceremony. However, McCrimmon had to tell his friend that he wouldn’t be able to make it to Toronto as he had accepted a head coaching job halfway around the world in a hockey outpost called Yaroslavl.

It was the last time the two friends every spoke to one another.

DETROIT – It had been a pretty good off-season for Mark Howe.

The Red Wings’ director of pro scouting, who still lives in suburban Philadelphia, has been riding a positive wave since learning that he’ll be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Class of 2011 later this year.

So when his best friend in hockey called recently to let Howe know that a new job would prevent him from attending the November ceremony in Toronto, Howe kind of shrugged it off, and told him that no apology was necessary. The two would just pick a later date to celebrate, Howe said.

However, Howe learned this week that that celebration won’t happen … ever.

That’s because Howe’s closest friend in the game was Brad McCrimmon, who along with 42 others, perished when a private jetliner carrying a KHL hockey team, crashed shortly after takeoff in Russia Wednesday. Former Red Wings defenseman Ruslan Salei and one-time goalie prospect Stefan Liv were also onboard the ill-fated flight, which was carrying their hockey team to Minsk for a season-opening game.

“I would say that Brad’s my best friend from hockey,” said Howe, who first met McCrimmon after both players first joined the Flyers’ roster in 1982. “Without a doubt, he was my closest friend that I had from the game of hockey.”

McCrimmon was the new head coach for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. The KHL team hadn’t even played a single regular-season game for their new coach, but the former Wings defenseman, who later served as an assistant to coach Mike Babcock for the last three season, was excited about the opportunity to coach in a foreign land. But ultimately, McCrimmon hoped the Russian job would parlay itself some day into a head coaching gig in the NHL.

“He had received a couple of good offers to stay in the National Hockey League with other teams in other capacities,” Howe said. “But he wanted to be a head coach, so he felt that if he went over there and had some more head-coaching experience and had some success then maybe it would open a few more doors for him in a year or two, and he would have a chance to come back. He wanted to be a head coach. He wanted to try and do it his way. That’s the biggest reason he went over there.”

Over the years, Howe and McCrimmon – and their families – created a very close bond, on and off the ice. It wasn’t unusual for the two families to vacation together, or for the McCrimmons to pay a visit to the Howes’ estate not far from the Atlantic Ocean.

“We always kept in touch. We always crossed paths,” Howe said. “His wife, Maureen, is from New Jersey, so every once in while they would get back here in the summertime, and they would come down to the Jersey Shore and we would visit. We went on a couple of vacations together; took Brad down to the Virgin Islands years ago and we would go fishing down there.”

Mark Howe
A few seasons into their run together in Philly, the two defensemen were paired on the blue line for the first time. That was the 1985-86 season when the two led the NHL in plus-minus rating, finishing first (Howe, +85) and second (McCrimmon, +83). 

“It was about three years after we first met that we became partners and we roomed together for the next 3 ½ years, and we continued our friendship throughout all of these years,” Howe said. “He was the best defense partner that I ever had. It was in our hay day back in Philly, and I think in that 3 ½ years we were a combined plus-minus of 190.”

The Flyers also reached the Stanley Cup finals twice in three years, but after losing to Edmonton in the 1987 finals, McCrimmon was traded to Calgary. Howe remained with the Flyers for the next five seasons, but was reunited with his friend in Detroit in 1982.

“It was nice when I came to Detroit as a free agent, we would confide in each other quite a bit,” Howe said. “I relied on him a lot when I made my decision to go to Detroit.

“Then it was nice to have him back for the last couple of years in Detroit, too. When I was there, traveling with the team, or whatever, whenever we could, we would spend every minute together. We sat on planes together. Yeah, we were good friends. We had a real good time together as partners, as roommates for a lot of years. And out of that, a friendship and a bond grew.”

Many former Flyers teammates, from Dave Poulin, to Rick Tocchet and Brian Propp, have called Howe over the last 24 hours to express sadness and share a few funny stories about the man that they all affectionately called Beast.

“We all remember Brad fondly,” Howe said. “I’m sure wherever he went, that everybody is remembering those Beast stories. It brings a nice smile to your face. He was a great guy to have in the locker room. He was a heck of a teammate and he was about one thing, and that was winning.”

“His endurance on and off the ice was incredible. He lived life to the fullest. And like the rest of us, as he got older he became more dedicated to his sport and his passion.”

As McCrimmon prepared to catch a flight from Detroit to Russia to begin his new coaching chapter a month ago, he called Howe.

“He was apologizing to me that he would be able to make it to my hall of fame induction,” Howe said. “He really wanted to be there, and I explained to him that he was – without a doubt – one of the most major influential parts of me being there. We agreed that when he got back that we would have a dinner and celebrate.

“I’m going to miss him. I’m going to miss all of our hockey talks.”

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose

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