Lokomotiv: One year later

Thanks to Photo Agency KHL

Today marks the one year anniversary of the Lokomotiv air tragedy, during which all 45 members of the team, coaching staff and crew perished as their plane failed to take off from an air field near the club’s home city of Yaroslavl.

Among those killed was head coach Brad McCrimmon, who starred as a defenseman for Philadelphia from 1982 to 1987 — three of those years in a memorable pairing alongside Flyers and NHL Hall of Famer Mark Howe.

Marcello D and Bob H, the two senior members of Flyers Faithful who were old enough to remember McCrimmon’s playing days, offer their reflections.

First up, Marcello:

My earliest hockey memory came at the age of six.

It was 1985 and the dominant Edmonton Oilers defeated the Flyers four games to one in the Stanley Cup Finals.

There are few precise details I actually remember from that season but I know that I loved Brian Propp, was really excited about Pelle Lindbergh, and was enamored by the defensive pairing of Mark Howe and Brad McCrimmon.

At that age, I was incapable of discerning how skilled these players actually were but I knew I was excited to watch them play. I knew they were good and that the team had a bright future because my dad told me so. I was optimistic because he was optimistic.

So, I was not too heartbroken about the loss. As far as I knew, that crushing 8-3 defeat in Game 5 was nothing more than another loss. The team would bounce back in the next game.

One month into the following NHL season, tragedy struck when Lindbergh crashed his Porsche into the wall of a Somerdale, NJ grade school.

It was my first real experience with death. I grasped that Lindbergh was gone forever and would never play another game for the Flyers but what really hit me most was that this imaginary bond I had was suddenly gone. Hockey was a bonding experience for my father and I — and it was easy to bond over the ’85 Flyers. He bought me my first set of hockey equipment that year and I knew I wanted to grow up to be a scoring forward like Propp, or a goalie like Lindbergh.

I didn’t know how to process this information or what to make of the contorted images of Pelle’s Porsche.

In January of 1986, barely two months after this tragedy, I stood there in front of my television, excited to see the Challenger space shuttle take off. Christa McAuliffe, set to be the first teacher in space, and I shared the same birthday. Like Lindbergh, I felt a special bond with McAuliffe.

The shuttle took off. My heart raced. This was amazing. Someone with my birthday was going to outer space. It was a dream come true for a little kid.

I stood there in front of the television with such anticipation — just like her parents and students stood there in person at the Kennedy Space Center — watching as the shuttle took off and a plume of smoke filled the sky where the Challenger once was.

We were all confused, uncertain, and in denial of what just happened. We hoped for the best and refused to believe the worst.

In an instant, McAuliffe and the six other astronauts were gone. Just. Like. That.

At seven, I already knew life was fragile. It was harsh, cruel, unjust, and could disappear in an instant. No kid should be aware of that.

Hockey became that much more important to me at that point. It was an escape, a way to derive pleasure and provide meaning.

When October rolled around, I immersed myself in the 1987 NHL season and delighted myself with the play of Propp, Tim Kerr, Peter Zezel, Howe, another young and promising goalie named Ron Hextall, and the reliable McCrimmon.

McCrimmon was far from the flashiest player but he was reliable, one season removed from winning the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the top Flyers’ defenseman, underrated, and comprised one-half of the Flyers’ all-time best defensive pairing.

After all the difficult events of the previous two years, it was a pure, unadulterated joy to watch McCrimmon et al. take the dynastic Edmonton Oilers to the brink of elimination in the ’87 Stanley Cup Finals.

This team had so much promise. I was so excited for the future. Then, in an instant, McCrimmon was gone. Bobby Clarke, the favorite son turned general manager, opted to trade the steady defender to Calgary instead of offering him a new contract.

In 1989, he helped the Flames to their first ever Stanley Cup championship (a pattern that has become all too familiar among former Flyers).

After he retired, I wanted nothing more than to see McCrimmon and Howe leave Detroit and return to the fold in Philadelphia. The Flyers always did right by their former players and it had to be only a matter of time before the organization brought them back where they belonged.

When McCrimmon accepted a position to coach Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL, I saw it as a circuitous route back to Philadelphia. Some day, he would get his chance to coach the home team at the Wells Fargo Center.

I was so excited to see how his coaching career would play out.

McCrimmon never got a chance to stand behind the bench as a head coach. Lokomotiv’s plane was on its way to Minsk, Belarus, to open the 2012 season when it caught fire and crashed.

Like the Challenger disaster over 15 years earlier, I was in denial of what just happened. Once again, I hoped for the best and refused to believe the worst.

Conflicting reports surfaced about whether or not McCrimmon was on the plane. I believed he was not. I had to. It was already too hard to fathom this tragedy just occurred and included so many recognizable names from around hockey.

I could barely hold back the emotions when the news broke about the tragedy. When it was confirmed that McCrimmon was on board, I openly wept at my desk. It brought the tragedy too close to home, made it too personal, and too reminiscent of those harsh realities from the 1980s.

At the age of 52, Brad McCrimmon was gone. Just. Like. That. Before his head coaching career could even start.

It was harsh, cruel, and unjust, a moment I will never forget but will always wish that never happened.

Bob: I’ve been on the receiving end of some great overnight/morning texts from my friend and FF’s Fearless Leader over the years, none more so than the ones heralding the birth of his two adorable kids.

But on the morning of September 7 one year ago, I received one which made my blood run

Thanks to Philly.com

cold before I even had a chance to comprehend what I was reading. It was so unexpected and beyond belief, not just for the sheer volume of the tragedy, but that there was another member of my beloved era-defining mid-80s Flyers who met an untimely end.

I don’t think I’m through processing it fully. What this singular event did, almost 26 years after the fact, was dredge up a lot of sunken emotion I’ve acquired while reflecting on the years since Lindbergh’s tragic death. It forced to the surface, from places I dare not look, that sadness which only seeps through when a piece of one’s childhood is ripped away.

It was the same feeling, though more intense and jolting, that I had the day in late May of 2009 when I was at work and, being the “hockey guy,” had to put on my professional pants and track down the story on the sudden death of Peter Zezel from a rare blood disorder. A crushing sadness.

It was so bittersweet for the man from Dodsland, Saskatchewan, who was trying to rebuild his reputation and gain a foothold in the NHL by kick-starting his coaching career on another continent.

Forced to take a job in Russia since the only legit North American bite he received – an interim head coaching post in Atlanta – couldn’t be guaranteed past the end of the season in which the change was made, and then not even living long enough to see his first game in charge.

More than a week ago, Bill Meltzer expertly laid down the thorny path that Clarke paved for “The Beast” to be shipped out of town in the Summer of 1987 to Calgary, and then to a Stanley Cup two years later and a playing career that didn’t end for eight years after that.

While we can quibble over whether or not the defense didn’t recover from that deal until either Eric Desjardins (Feb. ’95) or Chris Pronger (June ’09) arrived, there is no question that McCrimmon was one of a handful of ex-players who were always welcomed back warmly by the Spectrum/new building faithful through his time with the Flames, Red Wings, Whalers and Coyotes – and then into his assistantships with the Islanders, Flames, Thrashers and Wings.

I wanted him back. If not behind the bench, then one last time in front of the sellout Philadelphia crowd, watching with pride as he was honored by the franchise for his invaluable contribution to a franchise renaissance.

If there are hockey gods looming above us, and if they can be petitioned (while the little voice inside my head puts the opening lines of “The Soft Parade” on repeat), I say this:

Whatever debt I have accrued, it’s surely been paid and then some. Stop taking players from a team that got me hooked on the game. Four is more than enough. Take someone else, somewhere else, far from here. I’ll settle for a surprise aneurysm to Mike Keenan if you need to keep striking down anyone associated with those Flyers teams.

It’s fitting and appropriate that Howe has taken up the mantle of McCrimmon and Lokomotiv’s cause, boldly calling out the KHL and Russian authorities for not compensating the victim’s families during his own jersey retirement speech back in March.

I cannot see #2 without #10 and vice versa. Let it always be the case, in life and death.