Sunday, September 07, 2014

The time to honor 'Beast' is now

Thanks to the Flyers yearbook
Today marks the three-year anniversary of the tragic and unexpected plane crash in Russia which completely wiped out the KHL's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl club.

Chief among those felled in the wreckage was first-year head coach Brad McCrimmon, Flyers defenseman from 1982-87, who was famously paired with Hall-of-Famer Mark Howe for three of those seasons in one of the best 1-2 punches on the backline in a decade where scoring was paramount.

Howe is enshrined within the hallowed Halls of Toronto and Philadelphia, his jersey No. 2 raised to the rafters. He even included his old defensive partner and the decimated hockey team in both of his speeches during the 2011-12 campaign. Yet, McCrimmon remains an outsider as far as honors are concerned. That needs to be remedied immediately, if not sooner.

If there is room to have separate nights honoring two-thirds of the Legion of Doom and Eric Desjardins this season, there is certainly space to give McCrimmon his long-delayed due. Bill Meltzer had mentioned to me two offseasons ago that he'd like to see "Beast" go into the Flyers' HOF alongside Joe Watson, but the perfect opportunity for his induction can happen astride another franchise defenseman in Desjardins.

Howe can be there to represent his former battery mate, because he's a consistent presence in the press box as a scout for the Detroit Red Wings with strong ties to the area. Nobody in the sport can be a stronger advocate for the deceased than the player who contributed a plus-85 to the NHL-best combined plus-168 of that backline pairing during the 1985-86 season.

In just five seasons here, Howe's partner still ranks ninth on the club's all-time list with 187 points, eighth in assists and fourth in plus-minus with a near-unattainable number in this generation of plus-223. With his assistance and expertise, the Flyers finished tops in the NHL in goals allowed in 1985-86 with 245, second in 1986-87 at 245, third in 1984-85 at 241, and third in 1982-83 at 240.

What's more, is his absence due to a severely separated shoulder in the '85 playoffs significantly affected the rest of the defensive corps from doing their job trying to shadow Edmonton's top players. McCrimmon's presence two years later was a significant contributing factor to the Oilers having to wait until the final minutes of a Game 7 before finding security in winning.

And nobody who represents the franchise can be a bigger advocate than Bob Clarke, a man who once held a deep grudge against the native of Saskatchewan for slights both on and off the ice.

"I didn't like McCrimmon when I played with him. He was a big boozer who I didn't think cared," was Clarke's terse assessment of a franchise defenseman on reflecting about dealing him to Calgary in 1987. "He was a good player for (Mike) Keenan, probably better than I gave him credit for being. Maybe there were some feelings from previous years, I don't really know. In hindsight, it wasn't a good trade. I should have gotten a player instead of a draft pick."

For Clarke, and even new team President Paul Holmgren who never had anything negative to say about McCrimmon publicly, it's time to step up to the plate. Another strong advocate is Ron Hextall, McCrimmon's teammate during his rookie season of 1986-87, in the GM's chair. If not for Howe and McCrimmon, the lanky, stick-wielding 22-year-old from Brandon, Manitoba would have had a tougher go during what turned out to be a legendary rookie campaign. Though Hextall indeed has more pressing matters on his plate just four months into his tenure, those who followed his career arc know he can be a passionate, persuasive force.

"I had such a strong bond with those guys. Beast was on our top ‘D’ pair and I think he and Mark Howe were the best pair in the league," related Hextall, then assistant GM of the Kings, to the Los Angeles Times on the day of the tragedy. "The last time I saw him, he and Mark Howe came over to me and we just started talking. You could not see the guy for two or three years and you'd see him and it was like you’d just talked yesterday."

"When I think of teammates I had over the years and great teammates, Brad McCrimmon is at the top of the list. Any athlete wants to be remembered as a good teammate. He truly was."

The Flyers have accrued a pretty good track record when it comes to players who have passed through the organization and then passed on in an untimely or unexpected manner.

Barry Ashbee participated in 287 combined games over the last four seasons of his long professional career, saw his tenure ended with a puck to the eye and his life cut short with the sudden onslaught of leukemia.  His was the first number retired by the franchise, and the yearly Carnival lives on in his name.

Yanick Dupre's life was cut short at the age of 24 due to a short battle with leukemia, and despite seeing just 35 games of NHL action, all with the Orange and Black, his name has been affixed to the yearly award granted to the player deemed to have the best rapport with local media.

Though his legacy has been complicated by the manner in which he died, Pelle Lindbergh's name has also been affixed to an award: one given to the player voted by his teammates to have improved the most from one season to the next, mirroring his transition into a difference maker and Vezina Trophy winner during the 1984-85 season after being demoted one year prior.

The matter of whether or not Pelle's jersey will ever be officially retired seems to be shrouded in uncertainty, the unofficial enshrinement a lasting, yet silent honor. It would be a pity if McCrimmon's platitudes remain unheralded, since we know the uniform No. 10 will remain in circulation.

If there's any further doubt, how about a testimonial from one of McCrimmon's most enduring friends, a fellow Western Canadian, former Flyer and a man who has made Philadelphia his home ever since arriving as a first-round draft pick in 1979:

"I knew Brad McCrimmon since we were both 15. We played hockey against each other. He was with the Prince Albert Raiders and I was with the Melville Millionaires in the Saskatchewan Junior A League. We both joined the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Major Junior A League in the Western Hockey League the following year and played there together for three years. We were best friends and both got drafted in 1979 in the first round. We ended up playing together with the Flyers and later with the Hartford Whalers," said Brian Propp in an interview with Philly2Philly in December of 2011.

"Brad was one of the best leaders a team could have. He always helped the young players, led by example on the ice, and made sure that the team did a lot of things together off the ice also. Brad made everyone feel at home on a team. I know Brad’s family well and also his wife Maureen’s family well. He has been missed by many of his former teammates, but mostly by his family."

Since Desjardins' night won't take place until the middle of February, there's more than enough lead time for the front office and all other concerned parties to make the necessary arrangements.  The dual celebrations of Lindros and LeClair harken back to the early days of the yearly ceremony, when at least two former members related to the Flyers in some capacity were enshrined each time.

One defenseman is great, knocking out two whose time in the spotlight is long overdue is bound to be better -- an inter-generational event.

With apologies to the younger Watson, who will eventually find his place on the honor roll, McCrimmon's lack of corporeal presence and positive impact in a shorter time span simply can't be ignored.

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