In this May 30, 2009, file photo, Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock, rear left, and assistant coach Brad McCrimmon, rear right, watch as their team plays the Pittsburgh Penguins. A Russian jet carrying a top ice hockey team crashed just after takeoff Sept. 7, 2011, killing at least 43 people, including McCrimmon, and leaving two others critically injured.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Before greeting the new season, the Detroit Red Wings will bid farewell to an old friend.
The Red Wings were scheduled to begin training camp with a scrimmage Saturday in this Lake Michigan resort town. Instead, they’ll have a short skate before veteran players, coaches and managers fly to suburban Detroit for the funeral of Brad McCrimmon, a former Red Wings player and assistant coach who died in a plane crash in Russia on Sept. 7.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Nicklas Lidstrom, the 41-year-old defenseman and team captain, who as a rookie played on the same line with McCrimmon. “You kind of want to get some closure for the team ... and we want to pay our respects to Brad and his family. It’s going to be a very emotional day.”
Also among 43 people killed in the crash near the western city of Yaroslavl were Ruslan Salei, who played with the Red Wings last year, and Stefan Liv, a former prospect in Detroit’s minor league system.
Players and coaches interviewed before taking part in a golf tournament Friday said they were still dealing with shock and sadness while trying to focus on their goal of returning to the playoffs after being eliminated in the second round the past two seasons.
“It’s tough, especially when it’s still fresh in your mind,” said forward Pavel Datsyuk, who befriended fellow Russian Salei during their single season as teammates. “We’ll always try to remember these players ... and try to improve and play harder for them.”
Added forward Johan Franzen: “Such great guys ... I still can’t believe it happened. I don’t think many days will pass without thinking about them.”
Coach Mike Babcock expected the team to be focused after the funeral, with full workouts resuming Sunday.
“We all understand how tight the Western Conference is going to be,” he said. “Last year was beyond tight.”
The Red Wings will need a better defensive performance to improve on last year, when they were beaten by San Jose. After falling behind 3-0, they won three straight to force a seventh game but lost the tiebreaker, 3-2. They were particularly disappointing at home, Babcock said.
“We’ve got to be better without the puck,” he said. “Our defensive play and our penalty killing wasn’t up to par last year at home and we ended up giving too many goals. That cost us in the regular season and it cost us at playoff time.”
This year’s team will have to adjust to the loss of a familiar trio. Backup goaltender Chris Osgood, defenseman Brian Rafalski and forward Kris Draper have retired. But Lidstrom, fresh off winning his seventh Norris Trophy, returns to anchor a defense bolstered by the signing of Ian White, whom Detroit lured from the Sharks with a two-year, $5.75 million deal.
General manager Ken Holland also signed 31-year-old free agent Mike Commodore from the Columbus Blue Jackets and extended the contracts of defenseman Jonathan Ericsson and wings Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller. Eight-year veteran Ty Conklin was signed to back up starting goalie Jimmy Howard.
“It’s an opportunity for the younger players, the people in our organization who are in their 20s, to take a step forward,” Holland said. “We’re trying to rebuild to an extent, to transition from an older team to a team that’s a little bit younger.”
Forward Henrik Zetterberg said the Red Wings faced a similar situation after Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman retired.
“A lot of guys that had been around for a bit helped out and filled in,” he said. “We’ve all got to chip in.”