Sport is filled with silly sayings that make games seem far more important than they are.
Someone on that bus headed to a Saskatchewan junior hockey playoff game in Nipawin, a game that the Humboldt Broncos had to win if they were to continue on, surely thought, “There’s no tomorrow,” completely unaware that, for more than half the passengers, there would be none.
When the Philadelphia Flyers were on their way to a Stanley Cup victory back in the early 1970s, coach Fred Shero took a marker and wrote on the dressing-room board: “Hockey is where we live, where we can best meet and overcome pain and wrong and death. Life is just a place where we spend time between games.”
The Humboldt Broncos were indeed between games. On Wednesday, they had lost in triple overtime to the Nipawin Hawks, young Brandan Arnold tying the match in the third period and then giving his Hawks a 6-5 victory 5:44 into the third extra period. If Humboldt could win Friday’s must-win Game 5, they would force a sixth game and, just perhaps, a deciding seventh, where victory would put them into the finals of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
But it was not to be. At a shrinking settlement called Armley, some 30 kilometres north of Tisdale, the Broncos’ bus and a semi-trailer truck collided with such force that the top of the bus opened like a sardine can, leaving 15 dead and another 14 injured, some of them critically.
There would be no Game 5. Life, contrary to Fred Shero’s thinking, turns out to be where the many survivors – players, parents, siblings, billets, the town of Humboldt and, it soon became apparent, the entire country – will have to “meet and overcome pain and wrong and death.”
The only thing separating him from death, the late Canadian poet Al Purdy once wrote, is “a hyphen.” But when that hyphen stands between, say, 1998, the year Broncos captain Logan Schatz was born, and 2018, the year he died in this crash, it just seems so unfair. Other hyphens are even more stark, several now measuring 2000-2018, at least one 2001-2018.
Every player on that bus had a dream to play at the highest level possible, most thinking they had what it takes to make it all the way. But the 10 players who lost their lives were not the only dreamers. Brody Hintz was the team statistician, dreaming about one day working for an NHL club. He was only 18. Tyler Bieber was doing the radio play-by-play, no doubt thinking he might one day be calling the game on Hockey Night in Canada. Coaches Darcy Haugan and Mark Cross no doubt fantasized about standing behind an NHL bench.
Fifteen dreams shattered when that truck and that bus collided.
It was a sports weekend that seemed filled with warm promise, from the azalea and dogwood blossoms of the Masters golf tournament to the hockey hugs so widely offered to the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, who wisely chose to retire too soon after 17 seasons with the Vancouver Canucks.
The NHL season would come to end on the weekend, opening a door to the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, always the best time of year for hockey fans. But then came the news from rural Saskatchewan.
It took a youngster the same age as some who died in that crash to put it into national perspective. At 21, Connor McDavid is both captain of the Edmonton Oilers and, at the moment, the best hockey player in the world. As he so perfectly put it, “Everyone has been on that bus before.”
We have indeed. Kids and siblings and parents and grandparents. Kids in hockey, baseball, football, lacrosse, ringette, gymnastics, dance, curling, diving, skating – every activity we sign them up for in the belief that being part of a team both builds and reveals character. It matters not whether they are in a back seat of a bus playing cards or sleeping in the back seat of another parent’s car, we send them out and presume them safe.
Sadly, we have heard the story of the impossible and unimaginable before in different forms.
There is a roadside memorial just outside Bathurst, N.B., known as “The Boys in Red.” It includes a basketball net and the pictures and numbers of seven young basketball players who died, along with their teacher, in a 2008 crash with a semi-trailer. Four were 17, one 16, one only 15. They had just finished singing happy birthday to Nick Quinn, the 16-year-old, adding but the slightest distance on the far side of the hyphen that now tells the story of his life.
On the Trans-Canada Highway just outside Swift Current, there is another memorial to remember the four young members of the Swift Current Broncos – yes, same team name as on the Humboldt crests – who died when their bus hit a combination of high winds and black ice on Dec. 30, 1986.
The dead thought they were the lucky ones. They had climbed onto the bus first and claimed the seats at the back of the bus for a card game. Three were killed instantly. Uninjured teammates climbed out of the shattered bus and stood helplessly watching as Chris Mantyka, the enforcer, the team’s most popular player, called for their help as he struggled to extricate himself from the bus that was crushing him. They could do nothing, and soon there was nothing to do.
Not far from the memorial is the town’s welcoming sign, its motto “Where life makes sense.”
These small towns – Swift Current the largest with a population of 16,604, Bathurst with 12,275, Humboldt with 5,869 – are forever touched by such unbearable losses. They find their strength and they continue on simply because it is what has to be done.
Like small places everywhere, they love their sports and they love to see their children play those sports. Often, the sport defines the town. And the only way to find that definition is to play other towns. And that means travel.
Canadians in eastern suburban areas complain about 40-minute commutes to work, unaware that on the Canadian Prairies the commute to “play” – whether you play the sport or merely follow the sport – can take more hours than there is sunlight.
They will continue to make those drives, human nature and hope suggesting the events of Swift Current, Bathurst and Humboldt will never happen to them. Mostly mercifully, they are right.
But that does not mean they do not think of such moments and what they mean to those who must go through them. It was heartening this weekend to see social media used to comfort rather than attack. Sisters talked of lost brothers, parents of lost sons. Junior hockey players are blessed with two families, the one they come from and the one they live with. Devin Cannon tweeted out a photograph of three of the lost boys. “Last night I lost 3 sons,” he wrote. “I am a jr hockey billet Dad. These three men and the ones before them have forever changed my life. Thank you. #RIP3 #RIP18 #RIP5.”
His wife, Rene, a long-time “Billet Mom,” tweeted out three broken hearts along with three candles burning in front of the photograph of No. 3 Xavier Labelle, 18, No. 18 Logan Hunter, also 18, and No. 5 Adam Herold, who would have turned 17 this coming Thursday.
“Goodbye my sweet sons.”
Editor’s note: On Monday, the Saskatchewan Justice Ministry announced that two of the victims had been misidentified: Xavier Labelle survived, while Parker Tobin was killed. This story has been updated.