FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

BY: Bruce Berlet

I can still picture New York Rangers center Artem Anisimov, then with the Hartford Wolf Pack, standing with Alexander Vasyunov after he was named the No. 1 star and his former Russian linemate the second star in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Lowell Devils at the XL Center on Nov. 21, 2008.

Anisimov and Vasyunov, a speedy wing, had played together at different levels for a decade, often on the same line, with the elite Lokomotiv Yaroslavl teams before heading to North America after being born only a month apart and drafted just four spots apart in the second round of the 2006 NHL draft by the Rangers and rival New Jersey Devils. The XL Center game was their first meeting overseas, and they had plenty to celebrate and catch up on after the final horn sounded before heading their separate ways again.

Anisimov had deflected defenseman Corey Potter’s shot past Devils goalie Jeff Frazee with only 6.1 seconds left to cap the Wolf Pack’s second two-goal rally in the third period and send the game to overtime. Vasyunov had helped give the Devils build a 3-1 lead when he assisted on their second goal by Jon DiSalvatore early in the second period and then reciprocated with the South Windsor native early in the third.

Vasyunov also was robbed by Wolf Pack goalie Miika Wiikman in the second period, while Anisimov hit the post 4:50 into the game before getting the late equalizer and then tying the shootout with a brilliant backhander on his team’s final attempt. But Frazee stopped Anisimov’s ensuing try, giving the Devils a hard-earned win.

After being announced as the game’s No. 1 star, Anisimov acknowledged the crowd and then met and shook hands with Vasyunov, who had emerged from the Devils runway, in the Lowell zone. It’s likely the only time in the AHL’s 76-year history that two former Russian linemates were named the top two stars in a game.

“We play together since we were seven or eight so it was good to see him,” Anisimov said later in the Wolf Pack locker room. “He’s my friend. He’s a very good player with the puck and one-on-ones. We played on the same line for about 10 years.”

That would have been on Yaroslavl’s team in the Russian third division in 2005-06 and later that season with the KHL team and on their country’s Under-18 Five Nations tournament team in which Vasyunov was named the top player. The next season Anisimov graduated to the KHL team while Vasyunov played in the second division, though they were reunited for the World Junior Championship in which the Russians won the silver medal.

Anisimov, picked 54th to Vasyunov’s 58th in 2006, made the difficult move to North America for the 2007-08 season, getting 16 goals and 27 assists and being plus-16 in 74 games. Vasyunov arrived a year later after playing only two games with Yaroslavl’s KHL team in the first seven weeks and despite problems between the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL concerning player contracts.

“He really likes North American play; it more fits to his game,” Anisimov said. “He has good hands, he will do well.”

In 2008-09, Anisimov had 37 goals and 44 assists in 80 games with the Wolf Pack and played one regular-season game and one playoff game with the Rangers. Vasyunov spent most of his first three seasons in North America with the Albany and Lowell Devils, though he did get one goal and four assists in his first 18 games with the parent team last season.

Unfortunately, Vasyunov decided to return to Russia this season. On Wednesday, he and 42 others, most members of Yaroslavl’s KHL team, died in a plane crash near the Central Russian city. Understandably, it hit Anisimov hard.

“I know these people, half the team,” Anisimov told Jesse Spector of the New York Daily News after a workout at the Madison Square Garden training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y. “Young guys, we’ve grown up together, you know? In Russia, they have school – it’s one organization, Yaroslavl. You go to the hockey school growing up, play with the second team and then you grow up and play with the first team, so a bunch of young guys I know, and the medical staff, all the staff, I know too. So sad.

“I feel like – it can’t happen. I don’t want to believe it. The news says plane crash, and I feel sick. I feel bad. Sitting in traffic coming here, I felt terrible.”

The entire hockey world felt even worse than terrible, especially in Detroit, where former Hartford Whalers defenseman Brad McCrimmon had been an assistant coach for three years before leaving to try to land a head coaching job. It came on May 29, when he was signed by Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Sadly, McCrimmon never got to coach a game.

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock was a close friend of McCrimmon, along with one of his former players, Ruslan Salei, who also was killed in the crash. While McCrimmon was on his way to Minsk to make his head coaching debut, Salei was going to make his Lokomotiv debut after playing for Babcock last season in Detroit and from 2002-04 in Anaheim.

McCrimmon, known to his hockey friends as “Beast,” left behind his wife, Maureen, and two children, Carlin, 20, and Liam, 14. Babcock’s son, Michael, attends the same school as Liam, who is the same age as Babcock’s youngest daughter, Taylor.

Salei, known as “Rusty,” left behind his wife, Bethann, and three children – Alexis, Aleksandro and Ava, who was born in March.

Babcock spent several hours Wednesday afternoon consoling Maureen McCrimmon and her kids at their home in Northville, Mich.

“The first thought I have is obviously shock,” Babcock told Dan Rosen of NHL.com shortly after leaving the grieving McCrimmon house. “We all fly in our business. We never think of it or worry about it.

“The next thought I have is to hug your kids and do as much with them as you can, don’t put anything off until tomorrow because you don’t know when your number is going to come up.”

Babcock said he didn’t immediately think of McCrimmon and Salei when he learned of the crash.

“I thought of their families,” Babcock said. “You hope everything is in order financially. You hope, but you don’t know any of these things. I mean, these are good, good people with great families, and they’re going to be missed.”

Babcock had difficulty describing his time in the McCrimmon home.

“The big thing for me is not about what I felt; it is about what they are going through,” Babcock said. “I lost my mom when I was 26 or 27. That’s not 14 and losing your dad, I can tell you.

“You’re devastated for them because their world has taken a turn that you can never anticipate, never want to anticipate and never want to experience yourself. I don’t even know what to say. I feel terrible for them.”

Babcock gave McCrimmon his blessing when he left the Red Wings to look for a head coaching job and was devastated his friend will never get that chance.

“It happens in the world, but when it happens in our small hockey community – it’s unbelievable how many NHL franchises were touched today,” Babcock said. “But the people that were really touched are the families that are left behind. We’re going to mourn for a few days; those families are going to be affected forever.

“I can’t even imagine a young child losing their dad. I don’t know what else to say than that.”

Former Whalers defenseman Mark Howe, named to the Hockey Hall of Fame on June 28, played in Philadelphia with McCrimmon, a first-round pick (15th overall) of the Boston Bruins in 1979 who had 81 goals and 403 points was plus-444, the eighth-best total in history and third among defensemen, in 1,222 NHL games with six teams.

McCrimmon played in one NHL All-Star Game and won two Stanley Cups, as a player with the Calgary Flames in 1989 and an assistant coach with the Red Wings in 2009. McCrimmon was selected seven spots after the Bruins took future Hall of Famer Ray Bourque with the hope the two could form a top defense pairing for years. But McCrimmon had only nine points in 78 games in 1981-82, his third season, and was traded in June 1982 to the Flyers for goalie Pete Peters.

McCrimmon was paired with Howe and had three of his best seasons in an 18-year career from 1984-87, when he had 31 goals and 138 points and was a combined plus-180. His plus-83 rating in 1985-86 is tied for the 10th-best all-time in NHL history. In that time span, Howe was a plus-193, topped by a plus-85 in 1985-86, when he had 57 goals and 197 points. The Flyers went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1985 and 1987.

“We were (a combined) plus-200 in three years,” Howe said in a 2007 interview. “I don’t think Brad ever got the credit he deserved. Brad was a very quality hockey player, but just because players are great players doesn’t mean they play well together. We had a great chemistry. We roomed together; we basically did everything together. It was great. You never had to think the game, everything was instinct. We knew where each other was going to be. And even though we’d both screw up, have bad nights, nobody ever pointed the finger at each other. We’d always take the blame even if maybe the other guy deserved it. We were true teammates in every sense of the word.”

Reached Wednesday by NHL.com’s Bill Meltzer, Howe said in a text message: “Brad was one of my three closest friends. A man of his word. Best partner I ever had on the ice, but a better friend, husband and father off the ice. A sad day for the hockey world. My prayers go out to his family.”

Rick Tocchet, a rookie on the 1984-85 Flyers team, told CSNPhilly.com that he credits McCrimmon for starting him on the road to his own 18-year career.

“Brad is one of the reasons why I played as long as I did in the NHL,” Tocchet said. “Him and Mark Howe and Dave Poulin. I lived with Brad a couple of months my first or second year until I found a place. He helped me make it to the NHL. He taught me how to be a pro.

“You talk about small things in life. If you were on the road and had no money with you, you could go to Brad and he would give you $100. If there was a restaurant in the city, he would organize a team meal. Brad was an influential part of a lot of people’s careers.”

After five seasons with the Flyers, McCrimmon was traded to the Flames for two draft picks in August 1987, and he then had his greatest team success. After losing to the Edmonton Oilers twice in the Stanley Cup finals, McCrimmon helped the Flames beat the Montreal Canadiens to win the franchise’s only Stanley Cup in 1989. He had only three assists in 22 playoff games, but his strong all-round play and leadership were instrumental in the Flames’ title run. The following season he was named team captain.

“ ‘Beast’ was a quiet individual who, in my opinion, had a very deep and thorough understanding of the game,” Jim Peplinski, a teammate on the Flames’ championship team, told the team’s website. “I took great pride and pleasure and a lot of appreciation in talking to Brad about parts of the game that he saw in a way I certainly didn’t and many others didn’t.”

In June 1990, McCrimmon was traded to the Red Wings, and in his second season he was paired with a talented Swedish rookie named Nicklas Lidstrom.

“ ‘Beast’ I’ve known for a long time,” said Lidstrom, who has become one of the NHL’s premier defenseman for a decade while helping the Red Wings win four Stanley Cups. “He was my partner my first year, and my roommate, too, so I got to know him real well. He helped me a lot in my first year in the League. When he came here as a coach for us, he brought a lot of experience. He was good for the defensemen, helping out the younger players. The players learned a lot from him.”

McCrimmon was traded to Whalers in June 1993, and in three seasons in Hartford, he continued to be a mentor to younger players such as Chris Pronger, the second overall pick in 1993. Center Michael Nylander, who was in his second NHL season with the Whalers when McCrimmon joined the team, told the Philadelphia Inquirer he remembered his former teammate as “a great guy, a funny guy. He always had jokes.”

Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford, who was the GM in Hartford for part of McCrimmon’s stay, said, “(McCrimmon) was well-liked by all who came in contact with him. His presence in the hockey community will be greatly missed.”

After three seasons with the Whalers, McCrimmon signed with the Coyotes for their inaugural season in Phoenix, 1996-97.

“The Coyotes lost two members of our family in Brad McCrimmon and (Lokomotiv assistant coach) Igor Korolev, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families as well,” said Coyotes general manager Don Maloney, the former assistant GM of the Rangers and GM of the Wolf Pack. “Brad and Igor were part of the Coyotes’ inaugural season in the Valley and we will forever remember the great contributions they made to our community on and off the ice. They will be greatly missed.”

McCrimmon retired after the season and began his coaching career the following season as an assistant with the New York Islanders. After two seasons as coach of the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League, he returned to the NHL in 2000 as an assistant with the Flames. After three seasons with the Flames, he was an assistant in Atlanta for four seasons before joining Babcock’s staff in Detroit.

But McCrimmon wanted to get back to running his own team, which motivated his move to Russia.

“I talked to him in the summer and was curious why he went over to coach in Russia,” NHL player agent and long-time friend Rich Winter told The Team 1260 AM radio in Edmonton. “He was really looking forward to the opportunity. Brad is a really smart guy. A lot of people see him as a rough, rugged defenseman, but he played an awful lot in the league. I’m not sure why he never got the head coaching job he relished, but he was looking forward to leading a team and being a part of something different and using this as a learning experience.”

Unfortunately it never happened. RIP, Brad.

QUICK KHL DRAFT PLANNED

The KHL will try to rebuild the decimated Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team as soon as possible.

All but one of the 28 players, wing Alexander Galimov, was killed in the crash, and KHL president Alexander Medvedev said Thursday that he will ask each KHL team to volunteer as many as three players each toward a draft pool for the new Lokomotiv team. Such a move would give Lokomotiv 40 to 45 players from which to choose a new roster. Lokomotiv would also promote a handful of players from its youth team to be part of its senior team.

“The 18 KHL clubs whose representatives I have managed to speak with have supported this proposal,” Medvedev told Atlant Mytischi hockey club’s press service, according to an Associated Press report.

The KHL has 24 clubs throughout Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia. According to several reports out of Russia, Lokomotiv has already tabbed Pyotr Vorobyov as the new coach, replacing McCrimmon. Vorobyov was coaching the Lokomotiv junior team and also coached the senior team to its 1997 Russian SuperLeague championship.

Russian officials said Galimov survived the crash along with a crewmember. Galimov’s condition was said to be critical as both he and the surviving crew member were moved to a hospital in Moscow. Galimov reportedly has burns across 80 percent of his body.

A memorial ceremony for victims of the crash is schedule Saturday at Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s arena. Fans gathered outside the arena Wednesday night to mourn and were addressed by Sergei Vakhrukov, the Yaroslavl governor.

The KHL games planned for the weekend have been postponed. Games will resume next Thursday, the KHL said in a statement on its website. It is unclear when Lokomotiv will play its first game.

SEVEN AHL ALUMS KILLED

Vasyunov and Salei were among seven former AHL players killed in the plane crash in Central Russia.

The most prominent was Pavol Demitra, 36, who played three seasons with the Prince Edward Island Senators and in the 1996 AHL All-Star Classic before getting 304 goals and 768 points in 847 NHL games with five teams. He was a three-time NHL All-Star and a close friend of Rangers right wing Marian Gaborik.

On his Twitter account, Gaborik wrote, “Demo, u will always b in my heart. U were one of my best friends on and off the ice. U will be greatly missed by all of us. My condolences …”

Other AHL alums who died in the crash were assistant coach Igor Korolev (41) and players Robert Dietrich (25), Stefan Liv (30) and former Rangers defenseman Karel Rachunek, 32, who had a six-game stint with the Binghamton Senators in 2002-03 before playing 371 NHL games with three teams. Vasyunov was 23 and Salei 36.

“Our thoughts are with the KHL and the Lokomotiv organization on this tragic day,” AHL president and CEO David Andrews said in a statement released Wednesday. “Today’s losses are felt by all of us in the hockey family, and we offer our sincerest condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives.”

Rangers president and GM Glen Sather had special feelings for Rachunek, defenseman Alexander Karpovtsev and forward Jan Marek.

“The New York Rangers organization is greatly saddened after learning of the tragedy,” Sather said. “Words cannot begin to express the magnitude of devastation for such unimaginable loss. Two Rangers alumni and one former draft pick perished in the accident. Alexander Karpovtsev helped to bring a Stanley Cup championship to New York in 1994. Karel Rachunek played two seasons in New York, and Jan Marek was a former draft pick (in 2003). Our sincerest condolences go out to the families of these players, and the families of all those lost.”

Fortunately former Wolf Pack and Rangers goalie Steve Valiquette recently turned down a contract off to play for Yaroslavl this season, according to his agent, Kent Hughes. Valiquette, who lives in Connecticut and ran a goalie camp again this summer, was bought out over the summer after one season with CSKA (Red Army) and wasn’t eager to resume playing in the KHL without being assured of regular ice time.

“I can’t say he turned it down because of the air travel conditions over there,” Hughes, who also represents the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron and Tampa Bay’s Vincent Lecavalier, told Kevin Dupont of the Boston Globe. “But let’s face it, from everything we hear and read, air safety in Russia isn’t quite the same as here. At the end of the day, who knows the true risks? But I think many players would consider air travel over there to be an issue.”

Hughes recalled being on a domestic flight in Russia during the 2004-05 NHL lockout on which several prominent NHL players aboard, including Lecavalier, new Rangers center Brad Richards and former Rangers Darius Kasparaitis and Alexei Kovalev. Hughes, seated behind Lecavalier, told Dupont that he was mildly shocked during takeoff when Lecavalier’s seat all but collapsed into the agent’s lap.

“And prior to takeoff we were delayed because of some mechanical issue,” Hughes said. “I remembered the whole thing bothered Kasparaitis because the delay was supposed to be two-three hours, and then, all of a sudden, 20 minutes later they were taking off. Kasparaitis wasn’t buying it. He and some of the other players insisted that Kovalev ride in the cockpit because he’s got a pilot’s license. Like I say, different world.”

Take God that Valiquette decided to stay in the Land of Steady Habits.

PROSPECTS REPORT FOR DUTY

On a more mundane front, 24 of the top young players in the Rangers organization reported to the MSG training facility Thursday to begin preparations for a prospects tournament that begins Saturday in Traverse City, Mich.

Connecticut Whale coach Ken Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller will coach the Rangers team in four games as the Rangers hierarchy evaluates much of the future of the organization, including several players who will play in Hartford this season. And Rangers fans can watch the games on MSG Network for the first time and offer comments via Twitter as John Giannone and Joe Micheletti call the action.

The players will have physicals and a brief skate on Friday before the Rangers’ traveling party takes a charter flight to Traverse City. The Rangers play Saturday against the St. Louis Blues at 7 p.m., Sunday against the Dallas Stars at 6 p.m., practice on Monday and play the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. Placement in the round robin will determine whom each team faces in the championship round Wednesday at a time to be determined. The Rangers’ group returns to New York that night, then most of the players will report to Rangers training camp next Thursday before workouts begin Sept. 16.

Some TV guests will appear between periods of the games, while others will join Giannone and Micheletti in the broadcast booth or sit down with MSG analyst Dave Maloney in the stands. Viewers also can expect to hear from former Rangers goalie and broadcaster John Davidson, now president of the Blues. Hockey Hall of Famers Joe Nieuwendyk, GM of the Stars, and Al MacInnis, Blues vice president of hockey operations, will also be at the event and among the many prominent NHL executives available for interviews.

A complete roster of players can be found at www.newyorkrangers.com.

A FIRST FOR AHL ALL-STAR CLASSIC

AHL president and CEO David Andrews announced Thursday that the 2012 AHL All-Star Classic will be held Jan. 29-30 at the historic Broadwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J.

The first AHL All-Star event held outside an AHL city is possible through the partnership of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, Caesars Entertainment and the AHL.

“The American Hockey League is looking forward to working with the Boardwalk Hall, the ACCVA, the CRDA and Caesars to make the 2012 AHL All-Star Classic a truly special event,” Andrews said in a statement. “The historic Boardwalk Hall will provide an incredible and appropriate backdrop for us to celebrate our league and our sport’s best young players.”

The All-Star Classic, pitting the top players from the Eastern Conference against the best of the Western Conference, will begin with the skills competition Jan. 29 at 3 p.m. The All-Star Game will be Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. Tickets, which include admission to the skills competition and All-Star Game are $52 for seats on the glass, $37 for lower-level seats and $32 for upper-level seats. Tickets go on sale Monday at noon at the Boardwalk Hall box office, all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 800-736-1420 and at www.ticketmaster.com. For group orders, call 609-348-7021.

Details on other social events, including the 2012 AHL Hall of Fame induction and awards ceremony, will be announced at a later date. … The new Winnipeg Jets’ ECHL affiliate will be the Colorado Eagles, who were established in 2002 and played their first eight seasons in the Central Hockey League, where they had the highest cumulative regular-season winning percentage of any pro team in North America (.715). They made the CHL finals a record five times, winning in 2005 and 2007. The Eagles, who have sold out every home game, a minor-league record 311, including the playoffs, are coached by Chris Stewart and Greg Pankewicz, a former forward on the Manitoba Moose, the former AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks located in Winnipeg. The Jets’ AHL affiliate is the new St. John’s IceCaps.

Comments are closed.