The driver of the tractor-trailer that collided with the Humboldt Broncos' team bus admitted on Tuesday that he caused the crash that killed 16 people and injured 13 others, saying he wanted to spare their families a painful trial.
The guilty plea sets the stage for an emotional sentencing hearing later this month, in which the survivors and the victims' families will have a chance to explain how the crash, which left deep wounds in the hockey community throughout Western Canada, permanently changed their lives.
Jaskirat Singh Sidhu pleaded guilty in Melfort., Sask., to 16 counts of dangerous driving causing death and 13 counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm. His lawyer later said Mr. Sidhu did not want to put the families through a trial.
Michelle Straschnitzki, whose son Ryan was paralyzed in the crash, said the surprise guilty plea was a “good start” that will help with the healing process for families such as hers.
“It’s a relief that we’re not going to have to go through a lengthy trial, and certainly we understand that he’s remorseful,” Ms. Straschnitzki, whose family lives in Airdrie, Alta., said in an interview. “It saves the families a lot of pain right now and we’re grateful for that."
She said it also clears the way for the families to tell their stories to Mr. Sidhu and the public in victim impact statements at the week-long sentencing hearing, which is scheduled to begin on Jan. 28.
The Broncos' bus was travelling on a rural highway to a playoff game in Nipawin, Sask., on April 6 of last year when it collided with a tractor-trailer that had passed a stop sign and crossed into its path. The crash killed 16 people, including young players, team staff, the bus driver and a play-by-play announcer. Another 13 were hurt, many with severe and permanent injuries.
The crash led to an outpouring of grief from across the region and throughout the hockey world. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended a nationally televised memorial, and an online fundraising campaign brought in more than $15-million.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. Sidhu stood before the judge and said, "I plead guilty, your honour.”
Outside the court, his lawyer said Mr. Sidhu wanted to avoid delaying the case further.
“Mr. Sidhu advised me: ‘I don’t want to make things any worse. I can’t make things any better, but I certainly don’t want to make them worse by having a trial,' ” Mark Brayford said.
“He wanted the families to know that he’s devastated by the grief that he’s caused them and he’s overwhelmed by the expressions of sympathy and kindness that some of the families and players have expressed to him, in spite of the fact their grief is entirely his fault.”
The vehicle belonged to a small Calgary-based trucking firm, whose owner, Sukhmander Singh, has been charged in Alberta with federal and provincial safety violations.
Scott Thomas, whose 18-year-old son, Evan, died in the crash, said the guilty plea confirmed what he had always believed.
“It was my opinion right from the first moment of the accident that he blew through that stop sign,” Mr. Thomas said in an interview. “It was definitely a sense of relief. It just confirmed everything that I knew in my mind – that he was responsible for it.”
Mr. Thomas said Mr. Sidhu’s sentence is less important than the fact that he pleaded guilty.
“Whatever that number is, I think the most important thing is that he stood up and admitted responsibility for what he did.”
The crash prompted Saskatchewan and Alberta to introduce stricter rules for driver training and licensing. Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Highways made improvements to the intersection after a government-ordered report identified safety issues, including trees that would have prevented the drivers of the bus and tractor-trailer from seeing each other. The report did not make any findings about the cause.
It has also led some families of Broncos players, including the Straschnitzkis, to advocate for regulatory changes, including mandatory seat belts in buses.
Tom Straschnitzki said he phoned his son Ryan shortly after the court hearing.
“I said, ‘Now he goes to sentencing and it means we don’t have to go to trial, and you won’t have to speak,' " Mr. Straschnitzki recalled. "And he said, ‘Good.’ ”
With a report from The Canadian Press