On Humboldt and a Nation Grieving
The Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team poses for a photo March 24, 2018, after winning the Bourgault Cup. (Twitter/Humboldt Broncos)
The team bus is supposed to be a harmless place — a sanctuary of sorts — where coaches and athletes come together and build relationships and make memories.
But on Friday afternoon a horrible, unthinkable tragedy unfolded on a Saskatchewan highway involving the SJHL's Humboldt Broncos. I haven't been able to stop thinking about that crash and the state of grief the community and the sport of hockey has found itself in since. A large, dark cloud has been cast over an entire nation.
I've spent many hours on junior hockey team buses, first as a player, then as a broadcaster. Every team, every season, spends countless kilometres criss-crossing provinces from city to town, arena to arena.
The team bus is like a second home, one where you gather with teammates, prepare for games, celebrate wins and dwell on losses.
Every hockey team bus I've ever been on looks and feels nearly identical. The coaching staff, support staff, trainers and broadcasters sit at the front of the bus. They talk about line combinations, discuss special teams tactics and try to keep the team focused. As you make your way towards the back of the bus, you usually see the affiliate players, then the rookies, then some of the more veteran players at the back. Some players will keep to themselves, listen to music or play on their phones. On weekend road trips, some will group together to work on homework and compare notes. Some teammates will play cards, watch movies together or sit close and laugh and joke.
The hockey team bus is where people bond and life-long friendships are cemented.
When I think about the terrible crash of April 6, 2018, my mind often goes to a picture taken of the team just weeks ago. The Broncos are celebrating a win, they're close together, smiling and all the players have matching bleached blonde hair. The hairstyle is a silly tradition some teams take up around playoff time. The dye-job always prompts laughs and a few stares, but it serves an important purpose — those blonde heads of hockey hair say 'we're together in this; We're a family.'
I think the tragedy resonates with so many people because it's so easy to relate to. Across Canada, most people think it so easily could've happened to them, or their son or daughter's team, or their friend. Bus trips for sports teams are so common, so normal, that they happen over and over, every weekend, from coast-to-coast. It's those reasons why there's been such collective shock and an outpouring of support. Hockey is a sport that's ingrained in our national fabric.
My heart aches when I think of the players, the coaching staff, support staff, families and billet families, the community of Humboldt and first responders. What transpired that Friday night will never leave them.
I know I won't ever be able to forget it.
The Humboldt Broncos group was made up of young kids and adults, all with aspirations of winning and continuing their hockey careers at higher levels. Coaches, support staff and broadcasters invest hours into teaching, caring and trying to get the most out of the team. Players live in small cities far from home and give up their weekends to play hockey. They all give up so much because they love the game. They do it because they're in it together.
Broncos' President Kevin Garinger said Saturday “we are heartbroken and completely devastated,” and that's true for an entire nation. He continued to speak and nearly broke down, but Garinger stood strong when he said, “we will persevere.” And that's true, too.