Humboldt is in the heartland of hockey. It really is. Located east of Saskatoon, south of Prince Albert, not far from Yorkton and Tisdale and Melfort and Nipawin, it is one of those hockey-town communities where teenagers grow into men as they chase their dreams.
The junior A Humboldt Broncos were doing just that on Friday when they boarded the team bus and headed for Nipawin and Game 5 of their Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League semifinal series with the Hawks. Nipawin held a 3-1 edge in the best-of-seven affair, but you can bet your boots that the Broncos didn’t think it was close to being over.
That game, of course, wasn’t played, nor will it be. As the bus rolled closer to Nipawin, it was involved in a collision with a big rig.
Early Saturday morning, Nipawin RCMP revealed that there were 28 people on the Broncos’ bus, and that 14 were dead, with 14 others injured, three of them critically. Later Saturday, the RCMP updated those numbers, saying that there had been 29 people on board, and that 15 of them were injured.
That other number — 14 fatalities — didn’t change.
(Later Saturday, RCMP said the number of dead now was 15, including 10 players. Also dead are two coaches, two broadcasters and the bus driver.)
The accident immediately brought back thoughts and memories of Dec. 30, 1986, when the Swift Current Broncos were involved in a single-vehicle accident in which four players died.
On that night, the Broncos were en route to Regina for a game with the Pats. Just east of Swift Current, in winter driving conditions, the bus fishtailed, went into a ditch and, at a high rate of speed, struck an approach, went airborne, ended up on its side and skidded for a distance, before coming to a stop and becoming engulfed in silence.
On Friday, the Humboldt team’s north-bound bus came into collision with the west-bound truck at an intersection and was left a mess of crumpled metal. (There are photos out there but I just can’t bring myself to post them here. Sorry.)
Stuff like this simply isn’t supposed to happen, not to junior hockey players. They are 10-feet tall and bulletproof. The bus is their sanctuary, their home away from home away from home.
The Humboldt players were from places like Slave Lake, Edmonton, Saskatoon, St. Albert, Allan, Montmartre, Airdrie, Stony Plain, Lethbridge, Humboldt . . . hockey towns, all of them.
They now were living in Humboldt, and you can bet that the community had adopted them.
Most of these players, the ones who weren’t from Humboldt, had three homes, one with their own immediate families, others with billet families. There are siblings, and the brothers and sisters of the billet families. Ask an NHLer about his relationship with his billet family and, invariably, you will find that the vast majority of the these are long-term and rock solid, too. In later years, there often are wedding anniversaries, visits during off-seasons and Christmas visits.
And then there is the team as family, one that lives a lot of the time in a dressing room and on a bus, which really is the third home.
Todd McLellan, the head coach of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, is from Melville, one of those Saskatchewan hockey towns. He cut his coaching teeth with the SJHL’s North Battlefords North Stars. He pointed out on Saturday that the team bus “is as important as the ice. It’s a part of the fabric of our game. . . . It provides camaraderie and community.”
The team bus isn’t supposed to be a coffin. It just isn’t. It’s a place for movies, complete with goofy commentary from the peanut gallery. It’s a place for music and card games and cheap shots and zingers and the kibbitzing of teenagers. It’s a place to talk about dreams and girls and, well, life.
This was supposed to have been one of the best weekends on the sporting calendar. There was Sedin magic in Vancouver on Thursday night, and the twins putting the wraps on their careers in Edmonton tonight (Saturday). There is the Masters, starring Tiger Woods, in case you hadn’t heard. It’s also the final weekend of the NHL’s regular season, and there should be some excitement there.
Meanwhile, the second round of the WHL’s playoff continues. The Lethbridge Hurricanes, Moose Jaw Warriors, Portland Winterhawks and Tri-City Americans opened with victories on Friday night. None of the victors celebrated.
“I really don’t want to be here talking to you guys,” Moose Jaw head coach Tim Hunter told media after the game. “I feel really sad for those people. All these young kids that we have on our team, and I’m sure those guys over there and throughout the Western Hockey League, they’re all connected.
“It’s not an easy thing to talk about or even think about. It makes you sick to your stomach.”
There are four more games tonight, after which the Brandon Wheat Kings, Swift Current, the Winterhawks and the Americans will board busses and head for home.
You know they will do so with heavy hearts.
Meanwhile, the junior B Kimberley Dynamiters won the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League championship on Friday night. They rode their bus to Revelstoke, where they beat the Grizzlies, 5-3. The Dynamiters climbed right back on the bus and drove home through the night. You wonder how much dread was mixed with the excitement of what was a night to remember, at least in part because of all the wrong reasons.
But what now for the SJHL?
While it’s early and the tears have yet to dry, the SJHL powers-that-be, led by Bill Chow, their president, are trying to come to grips with what has happened. Still, they will have to make a decision soon. The RBC Cup is to open on May 12 in Chilliwack, and there are schedules in place with not a lot of time with which to play.
The Estevan Bruins have been waiting to see whether they will face Humboldt or Nipawin in the SJHL’s championship final. It is obvious that Humboldt can’t continue, but I would suggest that Chow and his people will decide to forge ahead. Really, it’s the thing to do; it’s what those who won’t play again would have wanted.
The Humboldt Broncos were chasing a dream, just like the players with Estevan and Nipawin. Those who no longer are with us would want the playoffs to continue and to be played to a conclusion.
Play them in honour of the Humboldt Broncos. Dedicate the RBC Cup to a franchise that won that championship in 2003 and again in 2008.
Besides, that’s who we are. We are Canadians, we are hockey fans, and we won’t ever forget while we watch through the tears.