Canada and hockey are like peanut butter and jam, gin and tonic (or more likely rye and Coke), pins and needles, Batman and Robin. Canada ranks first in the world with registered hockey players. The stats show that one in 55 Canadians plays hockey on some kind of registered team. That doesn’t include school teams or the hundreds of social leagues – the local 50-year-old lawyers squaring off against the local 50-year-old teachers at 1 a.m. because it’s the only available ice time. Canadians do not go gently into the good night where hockey is concerned. We just are not that good at hanging up the skates.
Across Canada, there are thousands of buses full of hockey players travelling to and from games everyday. For the towns they visit, they are the biggest ticket around. There are as many hockey parents as there are billet hockey parents, who take a player into their homes so they can play on a team far from where they came from.
For most Canadians there is something magical about the sound of the blade hitting clean ice and gliding away. It signals the beginning of a game that could be between 8 year olds or 80 year olds. It matters little to us. It’s still hockey.
The Humboldt Broncos are part of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and will proudly tell you they have been the launching pad for six NHLers. Humboldt boasts a population of 6,000. The team is made up of kids from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Friday night, players and coaches of the Humboldt Broncos, plus the local radio host were aboard one of those hundreds of team buses that criss-cross the country every day. They were headed to Nipawin, Saskatchewan, for game 5 of the semifinals. The players, 16-21, would have been napping, listening to music, playing cards, joking around, or visualizing the game ahead. They would all have been dreaming of playing in the NHL. Ask most NHLers and they will tell you that some of their best times were spent on bus rides just like this one. Toronto Maple Leaf Morgan Reilly said, “Even for me, my best memories are riding the bus, and doing what junior hockey players do: Talking, playing cards, watching movies.”
It was was around 5 p.m. and, after many hours on the bus, they were getting close to their destination. As they passed through the intersection of two remote highways, their bus collided with a semi-trailer truck. When the dust cleared the team bus was crushed in the front and the roof looked as if it had been removed by a can opener. The wreckage littered the ground, horrifying against the contrast of the iconic blue Saskatchewan sky. Fifteen of the 29 aboard were dead. The remaining 14 were rushed to the hospital, some by helicopter, where 3 are still in critical condition. The head coach, the team captain, the local radio host are among the dead.
Like all tragedies, it’s hard to comprehend, hard to wrap your head around the loss and there are no answers to the question why.
The local arena and church was filled with families and billet families alike, waiting to hear any news. Locals, are opening their homes for those that need a place to stay, a shower, some quiet. The town hotel offered free rooms and there is a non-stop flow of people bringing food and drink to the waiting. It’s what we all do, around the world, when there is a tragedy like this.
Canada may be the 2nd largest country in the world but today we are one small town struggling to pick up the pieces and hold it together.
Mike Babcock, coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs and a native of Saskatchewan, grew up not far from the accident site. He said he knew that road well and had talked to his buddy back home, a fireman. He had trouble keeping his emotions in check in a pre-game press conference on Saturday. “It’s got to rip the heart out of your chest,” Babcock said. We pray for those families and we’re thinking about them. I don’t know what else to say. Horrific, horrific accident. Tough day.”
“Almost 100 percent of NHL players played on a youth team at some point that rode a bus to a game,” San Jose Sharks center Chris Tierney said. “It hits home. It definitely hurts to see news like that.”
Maybe the best example of the connection between Canadians and hockey lies in a couple of tweets. Ex-NHLer, Colby Armstrong, tweeted just after midnight, “Please contact my mom or let any other families involved who need a place to stay or help in Saskatoon. #hockeyfamily .” His mum, Rosemary, had already tweeted, “I am a hockey mom in Saskatoon. If you or family members need a place to stay or any other assistance please contact me.”
Soon after word of the accident got out last night a Go Fund Me account was set up with a goal of 10k to help the families with expenses. By Sunday more than 49,000 people had contributed $3.2 million.
There is something special about belonging to a team. Bonds get formed that don’t break so easy. For hockey players, much of that bonding happens on those long bus rides. The Broncos were a team like any other. They had all dyed their hair “golden”, (most looked yellow,) for the playoffs. Their unofficial anthem was Jason Aldean’s Dirt Road.
In the hospital, they have put some of the survivors together. They need each other now more than ever. A picture of three bandaged players, lying on gurneys, clutching each other’s hands, says everything.
Saturday, as the last regular season games of the NHL were being played, we heard the names of the dead, and mourning all that could have been, as sorrow ripples across Canada from sea to sea. We may not have know them personally, but every Canadian knows players, boys, young men, coaches like them. Wherever those who died on that unremarkable stretch of Saskatchewan highway have gone, there will be an ice rink. In our hearts, they’ll be lacing up their skates soon, and hitting the ice as Jason Alden’s sings…
“I can take ya’ll where you need to go
Down to my hood and back in them woods
We do it different ’round here that’s right
And we sure do it good and we do it all night
So if you really wanna know how it feels
To get off the road with a truck and four wheel
Jump on in tell yo’ friends
And we’ll be raising hell where the black top ends
I’m chilling on a dirt road
Laid back swervin’ like I’m George Jones
Smoke rollin’ out the window,
An ice cold beer sittin’ in the console
Memory lane up in the headlights
Has got me reminiscing on the good times
I’m turning off the real life, driving, that’s right
I’m hittin’ easy street in mud tires that’s right”