Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Waskada mourns, celebrates

1,300 honour crash victims at emotional service

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WASKADA -- Jason Wickham was a hockey coach talking about three lost players, and how his team of young boys will persevere.

"We're just going to try and do it together," Wickham said. "I've never woken up to something like this before. So we're just going to have to learn together."

Wickham could have been speaking about a community, not just a hockey team. A week ago Sunday, this southwestern Manitoba hamlet of 200 residents was rocked by the deaths of four residents -- Darren Spence and his two sons, nine-year-old Logan and 10-year-old Gage, and their nine-year-old friend Dawson Pentecost -- in a plane crash.

Despite dangerous road conditions in parts of southern Manitoba Monday, more than 1,300 mourners packed into a construction company hangar that volunteers had spent days emptying to make room for the funeral services. Bulldozers and semi-trailers had been replaced by three framed gold-and-green jerseys of the Atom Canucks, which belonged to the boys, and a head table filled with flowers and photo albums.

Darren Spence, 37, was an experienced crop-dusting pilot who took his two sons for a plane ride. They asked their good friend, Dawson, who had never flown before, to join them.

The six-seater Cessna 210 was scheduled to fly to Brandon. It was spotted around 7 p.m. Sunday after crashing in a field about 10 kilometres north of Waskada, which is 300 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.

Volunteers set out 850 chairs in the main hangar Monday, along with 300 chairs in an adjacent room. It was standing-room -only when the service began. That didn't include the squadron of volunteers who arranged the hall and served sandwiches and dainties after the families returned from the private interment at the Waskada Cemetery.

The 90-minute service included poems in remembrance of Darren Spence from his mother, Lorna, and sister, Deb Spence Wiltshire, followed by the recording, I'm Gonna Fly by country artist Paul Brandt.

"Flight is freedom in its purest form, to dance with the clouds which follow a storm, to roll and glide, to wheel and spin, to feel the joy that wells within," read Spence-Wiltshire.

"Should my end come while I'm in flight, whether brightest day, or darkest night, spare me your pity and shrug off the pain secure in the knowledge that I'd do it again."

For the boys, both team coaches Wickham and Jason Reddin offered short eulogies. The songs were the kids' favourites, Bangarang by Skrillex and Ho Hey by the Lumineers.

Padre Steve Neil offered the opening prayer in a multi-denominational service that was also conducted by Rev. Heather Sandilands and Pastor Glen Whetter.

Wickham described the presence of the three boys on what had been an 11-member team: Gage had the shot and could score on a blast from the blue-line; Logan was the comic, who once came back to the bench after one shift and announced he had "taken his game to another level"; Dawson was the "quiet leader" who never gave up. The coach sometimes wondered if Dawson sometimes gave the puck up on purpose just to chase it down again.

"Boys, thank you for representing your town," Wickham said. "You did it with hard work, determination and class. You'll always be part of our team."

Wickham had known Darren Spence since grade school. "I just tell people he (Spence) was a lot of fun. He was just Darren. He didn't try to be anybody else."

Hockey was the theme of the memorial service. Members of the regional high school team wore their team jackets and escorted family members into the hall. Many mourners wore tricoloured ribbons of navy blue for Dawson (Jets colours), teal for Gage, who sometimes had it streaked in his hair, and orange for Logan, the colour of his favourite hoodie. The ribbons were made by local school children.

News of the tragedy had spread far from Waskada. The crash and its traumatic effect in the community -- the four deaths in a plane crash matched the provincial total for all of 2012 -- became national news. During a CBC broadcast of the Winnipeg Jets-Boston Bruins game Friday, Ron MacLean and Don Cherry paid tribute to the boys.

"The support we've gotten... has been absolutely amazing," said Denise Benton, principal of the Waskada K-12 school. "It's really what's helped to pull everybody through."

However, not only did three of the boys play on the same hockey team, two of them came from a class of 20 and another was from a class of nine.

Said Benton: "It's been tough. We're like a big, extended family. (But) we're at the point where we are ready to move forward and remember the boys; celebrate their lives instead of mourning their death."

Waskada Mayor Gary Williams agreed the morning after Monday's funeral "is going to be a big day."

"This place (the construction building) is going to be returned to what it's usually used for," the mayor explained. "That's going to complete the initial stages (of mourning). Then it's going to be the little things that are going to come up... "

For example, Williams said, residents will pay close attention to the atom boys team. After all, they were the oldest hockey team left in Waskada, which 30 years ago had its own senior team.

"They were the show," Williams said. "That was it."

It was not uncommon for the parking lot around the Waskada arena to be full when the 10-year-olds played.

The community will also have to recover from the enormity of the tragedy, Williams said.

"Just the magnitude of it drew us into the attention of the whole country," the mayor said. "Young families having to answer questions... that there's not a lot of answers for," he added.

"You see these little kids riding their bikes around. That's what you want. (Kids) playing hide-and-seek. And this was the kind of a town where a kid could thrive in that. We'll really miss watching those little guys," he said.

The community has set up a fund to help cover funeral costs for the Pentecost family -- cheques can be made out to the Village of Waskada, R0M 2E0. There is also a fund in honour of the boys to send local kids to hockey camp.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 19, 2013 A3

History

Updated on Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 3:38 PM CST: corrects that players wore team jackets, not jerseys, corrects incorrect word in prayer

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