Trent McCleary remembers being a 14-year-old boy and attending the memorial after the 1986 Swift Current Broncos bus crash that killed four people.
McCleary is now the chairman of the Western Hockey League team’s board of directors and said the wounds from that incident were reopened after the April 6 crash involving the Humboldt Broncos.
The latter crash happened when the Junior ‘A’ hockey team’s bus and a semi collided at a rural Saskatchewan intersection, killing 16 people – including 10 players – and injuring 13 others.
“It was our first year [back in Swift Current for the franchise after a run in Lethbridge] in ’86 when the bus accident happened here and it was a struggle,” McCleary said in a phone interview from Swift Current on Friday. “You think you’re rolling along and then something like that just devastates your community.”
The Broncos were honoured with a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah at the Memorial Cup opening ceremony on Thursday night.
And as Swift Current prepares to play its first game at the Canadian major junior hockey championship on Saturday, it will go against another community that has been impacted by a devastating vehicle accident in Bathurst, N.B.
Acadie-Bathurst Titan general manager Sylvain Couturier remembers very well when a van crash involving a Bathurst high school basketball team collided with an oncoming transport truck on Jan. 12, 2008. The crash killed eight people.
“I was present for the Boys in Red [tragedy] and the sadness of what happened in Humboldt reminded me a lot of what it was,” Couturier said.
“I know in Bathurst it put it back where it was and we [definitely] had a lot of sympathy and a lot of pain for the people of Humboldt.”
There is a significant link between Swift Current and Humboldt.
The year of the Swift Current bus crash, Humboldt captured the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League title while the year that the Humboldt crash happened, Swift Current won the Western Hockey League title.
“It’s hard to not make that connection between the Broncos,” McCleary said. “You look at even the colours, they’re green and black. Well, we have third jerseys that are green.”
Couturier has been with the Titan organization for 17 years and Bathurst is where his family grew up, including his son, Philadelphia Flyers forward Sean Couturier.
He said when people ask him about Bathurst, he always compares it to the TV show Cheers because it’s “where everybody knows your name.”
“That’s the difference I think between a big town, a big city and a small town like Bathurst or Humboldt,” Couturier said. “When you hurt someone, you hurt everyone and I think that’s the big thing about those small communities. I think it’s tougher for those small communities.”
McCleary said there’s a pipeline of Swift Current players that played in Humboldt and that the connection between the two places is strong and now eternal.
McCleary, who was captain of the 1993 Swift Current team when the Broncos last reached the Memorial Cup before going on to play 192 NHL games, is confident that the Humboldt organization is going to come back from the crash.
“They’re not going to roll over and die because of this,” he said.
“You kind of have to have a little faith that the big guy upstairs only gives us what we can handle and everybody knows that Humboldt can handle it. They can rise above.”