When he was called in to help, there was no hesitation. Dave Hunchak was in Kamloops, B.C., and jumped on a plane headed to Saskatoon. The former hockey coach was later taken to the city’s Royal University Hospital, where he mixed with parents and friends, offering his experience as someone too familiar with despair.
Mr. Hunchak, a member of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Hall of Fame, had a message to those grieving the deaths of 16 members of the league’s Humboldt Broncos following the devastating collision between their team bus and a transport truck: If they wanted to talk about their depression, about how to make it through the day, he would be there for them.
“We had hard talks, difficult talks about what things needed to be done,” says Mr. Hunchak, whose struggle with mental wellness cost him his marriage along with his head coaching job with the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers.
“I don’t know how much you can do in a situation like this. I provided my contact information. I talked to as many people as I could.”
It has been just over a month since the crash. Sixteen crosses and all manner of memorabilia have been placed near the fatal intersection of Saskatchewan highways 35 and 335. Sixteen memorial services have been held; four members of the Broncos remain in hospital, although they are no longer listed in critical condition.
The RCMP is still investigating who and what was responsible for the crash. Online fundraising has produced an astonishing $15-million. The Broncos have announced plans to return to the ice for the 2018-19 season and the team has said it’s working to rebuild, including recruiting a new head coach to replace Darcy Haugan, one of those killed. Eighty prospective players are expected at an invitation-only camp later this month: It’s unclear whether any of the players who survived the crash will play.
But as life moves forward, the shock of what transpired that day has given way to anguish. Families of the lost players, coaches and team staff have gone back to their homes and are learning how to cope with their emotions.
Some have taken up Mr. Hunchak’s offer and called with questions about depression. While he acknowledges he has never lost a child, he has endured the kind of downheartedness that took him to “the darkest place I’d ever been in.”
It came to a head on Jan. 8, 2014 when Mr. Hunchak “finally cracked” and left the Blazers. It took months of counselling and the right medication to stabilize his mood. He has told his story of recovery to those in search of hope.
“I give them the opportunity to vent to somebody,” Mr. Hunchak says. “I know I don’t want to ever feel the way I did during my down time. And I won’t. If I start to feel myself slip I will ask for help immediately.”
Deborah Carpenter of Red Deer was quick to seek assistance. She lost her brother, Mr. Haugan, in the crash. She was concerned for her children who had already been exposed to life-and-death matters eight years ago when their father was involved in a head-on vehicle collision.
It took rescuers 45 minutes to extract Andrew Carpenter from the wreckage. He was in a coma for six days then spent another seven in ICU. He stayed 76 days in a Red Deer hospital with a fractured skull and a traumatic brain injury.
“He’s pretty much back to normal,” Ms. Carpenter says. “But the kids [five of them] really struggled. I got them into counselling. Now they have to deal with the loss of my brother. I’m big on the mental-health issue. You’ve got to talk about it.”
Terry Shea, in Kindersley, Sask., took that approach as the governor of the SJHL’s Kindersley Klippers, the team Mr. Hunchak coached to a league championship in 2003-04. It was because of Mr. Hunchak’s back story that Mr. Shea texted him asking if he could leave Kamloops and return to his Saskatchewan roots.
“He was available to do whatever needed to be done,” Mr. Shea says. “It hit home for a lot of people. It’s the tragedy of the century, I call it.”
As for Mr. Hunchak, he had a coaching stint last season with Banska Bystrica of the Slovakia Extraliga, its top professional league. But he was through with coaching and found solace as a manager in the restorations business and as a vice-president with an analytics company. He says he has learned the best way to handle his depression by embracing what he has.
“The mindset I have is: Enjoy the day because you don’t know if the next one is going to come; enjoy your family; enjoy your work and live. Just live.”