“The team is feeling pretty down after hearing what happened this morning,” a somber Nicklas Lidstrom
said, referring to news that former assistant coach and defensemen Brad McCrimmon, defenseman Ruslan Salei, and goalie Stefan Liv were aboard when the tragedy occurred.
McCrimmon, who was an assistant coach for the past three seasons to Wings’ head coach Mike Babcock, was affectionately known as ‘Beast’ to his friends and teammates. McCrimmon leaves behind a wife and two children.
McCrimmon played 18 NHL seasons, including three-season stint with the Wings in the early-90s. He left the Wings’ organization this summer to accept the heading coaching job with Lokomotiv. The team was to fly to Minsk for the KHL season-opener Thursday.
“We know Brad's kids well. He’s a good man and was a real big part of our organization," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “Obviously it’s been a tough day around here and our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of Brad, Rusty and Stefan.”
Lokomotiv had at least five former NHL players on its roster, including Salei, who played last season for the Wings. Salei leaves behind a wife and three young children, including a six-month-old daughter.
“They’re both special in their own ways. Rusty was a team player who played well for us, and Beast I’ve known for a long time,” Lidstrom said. “He was my (defensive) partner my first year in the league over here and he was my roommate, too, so I got to know him real well.
“He helped me out a lot my first year over here and when he became an assistant coach for us I thought he brought a lot of valuable experience that helped us. I thought he was really good with the defense, especially the younger guys, and everyone learned a lot from him.”
Last March, Salei and his wife, Bethann, welcomed their third children, with the birth of Ava Ruslanovna Salei, who joined her older sister, Alexis, and brother, Alesksandro. But Salei’s family remained in California, which really weighed on the veteran defenseman’s mind.
“Yeah, I think it was hard on him, being away from his family last year and he made a lot of trips back to California to see them,” Lidstrom said. “I know it wasn’t easy on him, but he loves playing hockey and that’s why he wanted to be here and be a part of our team.”
Salei, 36, played 14 NHL seasons, including a pair for Babcock in Anaheim from 2002-04. Salei was a grinding-type of defenseman, and he fit perfectly into Babcock’s system, which is why the Wings signed the veteran defenseman to a one-year contract in August 2010.
“He’s a great guy. A family guy,” Babcock said. “He was a big part of our team here and a big part of our team out in Anaheim when we had good years there. His family meant a lot to him and I sent him home – I don’t know how many times – to see his family.”
Salei also played for Florida and Colorado, but a bad back in 2009-10 forced Salei to miss the majority of the season with the Avalanche. Last season, Salei played in 75 games for the Wings. He finished his NHL career with 45 goals and 159 assists in 917 games.
McCrimmon, 52, was originally selected by Boston in the first-round of the 1979 NHL draft. As a 20-year-old rookie, McCrimmon played along side a pair of future hall of famers in Brad Park and Ray Bourque. He also played with Dick Redmond, brother of former Wings’ sniper Mickey Redmond.
After a five-year run in Philadelphia, McCrimmon was traded to Calgary, where he made an immediate impact by leading the league with a plus-48 rating. Three years later, the Red Wings acquired McCrimmon, who was partnered with a young Swedish defenseman, who made his NHL debut on Oct. 3, 1991.
“He was more of a stay-at-home defenseman so that gave me the opportunity to jump up in the play and be a part of the offense,” Lidstrom said. “He was my partner every game in my rookie year and he was a stable, steady defenseman. He
also protected me in certain situations when things got a little heated so he was a great partner to have.
“He’s a happy-go-lucky guy who brought a lot of positive energy to the rink. I thought he was a great assistant coach for us. He really helped out a lot of the younger D-men and encouraged them when things weren’t going their way. I thought he was a great mentor for them.”
Liv, 30, was the first of four fourth-round draft picks selected by Wings in 2000. However, the Polish-born goaltender chose to remain in Europe where he eventually played nine seasons for HV-71 in Sweden’s Super Elite League.
Yet, in 2006, Liv signed a one-year contract with the Wings, and spent much of the season with the club’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids. There, Liv finished with a 15-15-2 record, a 3.01 goals-against and .895 save percentage. He was called-up twice to serve in a back-up capacity for the Wings that season, but ever saw NHL action.
“I think it’s a huge loss for the hockey world,” Lidstrom said. “It’s very tragic.”