VANCOUVER – It was here on the west coast, where the seasons typically dissolve in shades of grey into one another, that distinct “Summer Crow” and “Winter Crow” were born.
The mood change Marc Crawford underwent from summer to hockey season — from an amiable and self-deprecating guy to the volcanic coach who radiated tension and was always liable to burst – was unmistakable. Even Crawford came to know “Summer Crow” and “Winter Crow.” The labels were funny for a while, but never to his players.
Given the chance by the NHL and Chicago Blackhawks to save his career, Crawford’s future as a coach now hinges on the 58-year-old becoming just a single, respectful and respectable version of himself. No more summer and winter. Just “Crow.”
When Crawford returned to the ice at Rogers Arena on Thursday morning, at the end of a month-long suspension the proactive Blackhawks gave him for abusive and at times violent behaviour nearly an NHL generation earlier, Chicago players broke spontaneously into a rhythm of stick taps ahead of their game against the Vancouver Canucks.
Crawford says he has changed from the erratic coach who kicked Sean Avery and Brent Sopel when he ran the Los Angeles Kings more than a decade ago. Not many people outside Crawford’s family can testify to this. But it’s clear the Blackhawks love him.
Presumably, they have no reason not to.
“It was just kind of something that happened,” 22-year-old forward Alex DeBrincat said of the stick taps at the morning skate. “We didn’t talk about it. One guy started doing it, so everyone did it. It felt good. I don’t know all the old stories but, obviously, some weren’t too good. But here, he’s been nothing but great. He’s been a positive voice behind the bench during games and in practice. I know he’s really helped me out personally, and a lot of other guys, too.”
In response to stories of abuse from ex-players Avery, Sopel, Patrick O’Sullivan and Harold Druken, the Blackhawks suspended Crawford on Dec. 2 and hired a law firm to conduct an investigation.
When the team announced two weeks later that Crawford would be reinstated on Jan. 2, he issued a statement that he was “deeply sorry” for having hurt players and revealed that he had undergone counselling years earlier to understand and change his behaviour.
Speaking Thursday to reporters for the first time since allegations against him surfaced, Crawford praised the courage of the players who came forward to publicize the abuse they suffered but declined to say if he has spoken to them or what conversations he had with other players in the last month.
“It’s really about me and some of the things I did wrong with some of the teams and some of the players I had during my career,” he said. “For that, I’m very sorry. I wish those things didn’t happen, but they did. What I hope to do, again, is try and continue to be better.”
Later, he said: “I have reached out to many, many players and I’ve heard from many players, but I’m going to leave it at that. This is an ongoing process. As I said in my statement, I’m all about making sure I do the right thing, that I listen and that I understand. Really, that’s what I hope comes from this – that I understand. . . how any of those players are feeling. If that happens, then I hopefully can become better for it, they become better for it and hopefully, in the long run, the game becomes better for it.”
Crawford said he began counselling after the Kings fired him in 2008 following just two seasons because “I just felt I was apologizing too much (for things he did). I didn’t like that feeling. I still don’t like it; it’s very uncomfortable for me to feel that way. Finding out why I am like I am takes a lot of introspection.”
Short of Crawford producing psychiatry bills, it’s easy to be cynical about his counselling.
After all, the Dallas Stars hired him in 2009, then also jettisoned him two years later following a 95-point season. Clearly, there must have been factors in their assessment of Crawford beyond the team’s performance.
But anyone who thinks that Crawford’s sole “punishment” for his behaviour was a month-long paid leave in Chicago over Christmas should look at his career trajectory.
After the Stars fired Crawford, who won a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 1996 before helping resurrect the Vancouver Canucks over six and a half seasons, the coach was 50 years old in 2011, still in his prime, but was locked out of the NHL for the next five seasons.
He went to Switzerland to coach before getting an apparent last chance in the NHL in 2016 as an assistant with the Ottawa Senators. By all accounts, Crawford was a model coach during his three seasons there. The Blackhawks thought so.
“I’m not sure that I’m the example,” Crawford said when asked about changing with the NHL’s culture. “I do want something good to come from this situation. My mother used to always say: ‘Things happen for a reason.’ I never really understood why she felt like that, but that’s been kind of the way I’ve always been. Maybe the reason is there can be some good that comes out of this.
“You can hopefully look and say there’s a right way to do things even when you screw up. Hopefully, I’m acting in the right way. Again, it’s not just about me. It’s about myself and all these other guys that came forth with their statements. As long as you stay sensitive to people’s feelings and you stay sensitive to the process, I think good will happen from it. And my mother will be right.”