It is an accepted rite of passage: You want to make it in hockey? You’ve got to ride the Iron Lung, its nickname from another era. You have to put in the time, the long nights on long trips, because that’s how it is done. That’s how junior-aged players go on to become professionals.
They live on the team bus. They sleep, eat, dream, make friends, laugh, cry, aspire, play video games, play poker, watch movies (Slap Shot anyone?). They grow up together. And now we’re reminded they can die together on the very bus that is supposed to be their safe haven.
It’s a grim reality as Canadians mourn the Friday crash that claimed 15 people, 13 of them members of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Humboldt Broncos. That so many were killed so suddenly is part of an inherent dread that has come to pass.
“We see teams going out into the Canadian winters on buses all the time and it’s always a thought in parents’ and fans’ minds about what could happen,” said Rob Muench, Humboldt’s mayor. “And unfortunately [it] has happened here, in Humboldt.”
Every hockey season, dozens upon dozens of teams gather up their players, put them in buses and travel here and there through the winter, often at night, sometimes with snow being blown so hard all vision is lost. None of that was in play when the Broncos’ bus was torn apart after colliding with a semi-trailer on a late afternoon. Somehow, it happened as some feared it might.
“This is a real-life story. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare,” said Kelly McCrimmon, owner of the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings and the assistant general manager of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights. “Anyone in hockey who goes through that stage where they ride the bus, later on they look back and talk about it being the best part. … You’re supposed to feel safe on the bus.”
The 22-team WHL is a bus man’s delight. There are trips that take teams from Victoria to Brandon, Man., from Prince Albert, Sask., to Portland. The Victoria Royals did a four-games-in-five-nights road swing last December that took them through Alberta and Saskatchewan. The trip clicked in at 3,653 kilometres.
That’s a meaningful number for NHL teams. A player who has all that mileage under him and can still produce on the ice for 72 games (down to 68 games for the 2018-19 season) is thought to be more NHL-ready than his counterparts in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.
“We had the most travel miles [during the WHL season],” said Mr. McCrimmon, noting NHL scouts take that into account when they evaluate players. “There’s a lot of time spent on the bus. It becomes the players’ sanctuary.”
Former NHL player Keith Jones, now an analyst for NBC, rode the buses for Western Michigan University and for two seasons in the American Hockey League. He acknowledged that “those bus rides are where your greatest friendships are made. You’re spending time together, playing cards together. You’re not just teammates; you’re making friendships for a lifetime. This is a complete tragedy.”
There have been other bus catastrophes involving hockey teams over the past 31 years. In January, 2005, a bus carrying the Windsor Wildcats, a girls hockey team, crashed into a tractor-trailer stopped on the side of a highway near Rochester, N.Y. Three people on board the bus were killed.
The victims’ families filed suit against the bus and trucking companies then settled for US$36-million. Prior to that, three seriously injured team members were awarded US$2.25-million by a jury.
The other well-publicized bus accident came in December, 1986. It occurred along the Trans-Canada Highway when the Swift Current Broncos’ bus hit a patch of black ice, struck an embankment and landed on its side. Four players – Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Chris Mantyka and Brent Ruff – were sitting at the back of the bus when they were killed.
Former NHL Hall of Fame defenceman Chris Chelios rode the buses for two years (1979-1981) in the SJHL with the Moose Jaw Canucks. He recalled there were many times the bus rolled along through snowy conditions and poor visibility.
“I used to sit at the back of the bus because I thought it was safer,” Chelios explained. “We turned the seats around so they faced each other. I never slept with my head facing the front of the bus. It’s a wonder there haven’t been more tragedies.”
There was another incident in 1988 when the Moose Jaw Warriors’ bus found an icy patch and slid out of control, right off the highway. There were no fatalities that night but there were injuries, enough for the team to realize it got away lucky.
Since there is no better, affordable alternative, junior and major junior hockey teams will continue to ride their bus while others, such as SJHL president Bill Chow, will continue to fret over the things that could go horribly wrong.
“I go to sleep every night worrying about the kids on buses and everybody else,” said Mr. Chow.
For that, Toronto Maple Leafs’ coach Mike Babcock, who knows the stretch of highway where the Humboldt bus rests in two pieces, offered this advice: “It just goes to show you, you’ve got to embrace each and every day. And each and every day you’re with your family, you better enjoy it.”