Humboldt Broncos tragedy strikes at the heart of Canada
You must understand that in Canada, there is hockey and then there is everything else
Flowers lie at centre of the ice as people gather for a vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, to honour the victims of a fatal bus accident on April 8th. Photograph: AFP Photo
The bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos was heading north on Highway 35 when it collided with a tractor trailer laden with peat moss at an intersection known as Armley Corner. Fifteen of the 29 passengers died, including the driver, the coach, his assistant, the radio commentator, a teenage statistician, and 10 players between the ages of 16 and 21.
Taken far too soon, on their way to pursue sporting dreams in a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League play-off game in Nipawin last Friday, their deaths have broken Canada’s heart.
“Even though I walk through the valley of darkness,” said team chaplain Sean Brandow, describing his feelings when he arrived upon the crash scene. “That’s all I heard. That’s it. That’s it. That’s all that went through my head, this is it, this is the valley of death, this is the valley of darkness. And all I saw was darkness. All I saw was hurt and anguish and fear and confusion. And I had nothing. Nothing. I’m a pastor, I’m supposed to have something.”
To grasp the scale of the grief, you must understand that in Canada, there is hockey and then there is everything else. Ne plus ultra. Other nations play the game too but it’s quintessentially and always theirs, the same way baseball is America’s and hurling represents the best of us. To lose a group of men so devoted to the national sport in these circumstances is a national tragedy because, on any given day, hockey teams of all ages are traversing the second largest country on earth going to and from games.
They are, invariably, heading to play in small towns like Humboldt where the Elgar Peterson Arena seats 1,800 and the entire population is just under 6,000. A ratio that tells you how important the team is to those who live there.
While some of the amateur players are local, most come in from across the state, hoping the Broncos represent the next step on their climb through the foothills of the sport. They stay with host families for whom their presence in the basement or spare room is a thrill and a boast, affording them proximity to the place’s abiding passion. The same families are now mourning their sudden loss like they would the death of their own child.
In nearly five decades, the Broncos have sent just half a dozen to the NHL but many more alumni garnered valuable college scholarships or just departed with memories of the best time of their young lives, eternal seasons when they were young and hockey was all that ever mattered.
Somewhere between boys battling the pangs of homesickness and men trying to make their way in the world, their minor league celebrity meant restaurants in Humboldt often gave them half-price meals and strangers insisted on paying for their coffees. These were the perks. The downside was the travel.
While the drive to Nipawin was a mere 130 miles, for Humboldt, games against the likes of Flin Flon involve an almost 700 mile round trip and that isn’t as far flung as many of the other regional leagues in Canada where journeys of 12 hours are not uncommon. Sometimes, teams stop at malls and force everybody to walk around to try to stave off a stiffness known as “bus legs.” Yet, these epic odysseys, often in the teeth of winter with snow falling outside the windows and treacherous driving conditions, are regarded as essential to a player’s development on and off the ice.
Somewhere on those endless ribbon highways criss-crossing the vast Canadian Prairies, awkward adolescents morph into slightly less awkward young adults. The schedule is sapping, the more senior players inevitably colonise the back seats, and arguments about the bus thermostat are a constant. But, they all know this is just part of the game’s ritual, a character-building experience en route to unforgiving small-town rinks where they will learn the hard way whether they truly have what it takes.
Along the way, friendships are forged that will endure long after most of them are forced to put away their childhood fantasy of making it all the way to the show.
“Even for me, my best memories are riding the bus, and doing what junior hockey players do: talking, playing cards, watching movies,” said Toronto Maple Leafs’ defenceman Morgan Rielly last week. “When you talk to guys in this lockerroom or on different teams that you might meet along the way, that’s the first thing you talk about, ‘Oh, what was your longest bus ride?’”
As is customary during play-off runs when teams search for juvenile ways of evincing solidarity, many of the Broncos had died their hair a garish blonde recently, a detail that caused a nightmarish twist in the tale when it emerged the coroner originally misidentified two of the players. It was only when dental records became available that they realised the body thought to be Xavier Labelle was actually that of his team-mate Parker Tobin, adding one more layer of unimaginable suffering for the families involved.
Within hours of the crash, one Humboldt resident took a hockey stick, placed it outside his front door and posted a photograph on social media with the message, “Leaving it out on the porch. The boys might need it tonight . . . wherever they are.”
What else, really, is there to say?