Grieving hockey’s lost sons

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They bleached their hair to a goldenrod yellow, because that’s the kind of thing young people do, when wheeling through shared adventures. They grow beards. Dye their hair loud colours. Anything to show they’re in it together.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/04/2018 (1587 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

They bleached their hair to a goldenrod yellow, because that’s the kind of thing young people do, when wheeling through shared adventures. They grow beards. Dye their hair loud colours. Anything to show they’re in it together.

Over the years, kids like this grow accustomed to being together. The most vivid stories of their shooting-star youth will belong to each other, remade every time they squeeze into a bus, or a cold hotel room in the heart of nowhere.

And then: the hands patting helmets, and arms around shoulders. The sharp, wet scent of each other’s sweat, in the moments when that was the perfume of a win. Astride the whole world, and right beside him, and him, and him…

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS Mourners comfort each other as people attend a vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, to honour the victims of a fatal bus accident in Humboldt, Sask. on Sunday, April 8, 2018.

There are also the stories they keep for themselves. The ones they don’t tell to anyone else, because the humour wouldn’t come across the right way: too rambunctious, too raw. But at the time, you know, it’s just kids having fun.

They won’t tell these stories often, and youth can’t last forever. But decades later, in the brief windows when a few of their lives intersect at the same place and same time, they’ll put the kids to bed and crack a beer on someone’s deck.

Those other stories will come out then: “Remember when,” they’ll say, and “remember when?” And they’ll roar with laughter, the same stories told a thousand times over, the familiar old punchline somehow grown funnier with time.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS Photos of people involved in a fatal bus crash are seen prior to a vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, in Humboldt, Sask. on Sunday, April 8, 2018.

That’s the footworn path, for young hockey players. They grow up and scatter apart and carry it forward. In their minds, they still feel the threads tugging them back to all of those things they did together: learn, live, win, lose.

But my God, you don’t expect them to die together, too.

● ● ●

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS Flowers lie at centre 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 in Humboldt, Sask. on Sunday, April 8, 2018.

Kim Davis was at the arena in Steinbach when his phone rang. He can’t remember now whether the warm-up was still going, or whether it had just finished. Either way, it was in that anticipatory crescendo just before the big game.

The MJHL commissioner answered the call. Beside him, at almost the same time, his colleague Kevin Saurette’s phone started buzzing with an incoming text; so they sat there, trying to make sense of what they were learning.

Words, rushing by in lurid flashes: Humboldt Broncos. Bus crash. Fatalities.

LIAM RICHARDS / THE CANADIAN PRESS Community members arrive to a vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, to honour the victims of a fatal bus accident in Humboldt, Sask. on Sunday, April 8, 2018.

As this news unfolded across the country, the hockey world — and everything that touches it — tried to grapple with the unfolding reality. A catastrophe, unimaginable, and followed so quickly by an unbearable question: how many?

One is too many. One would have been too many. But one is not all there was.

By Saturday morning, the numbers: 14 dead, 15 wounded. As the day wore on, it became even more unbearable: 15 dead, 14 wounded. A list so long that, for clarity’s sake, media had to name not only who died, but also who survived.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS Two women comfort each other as they look at photographs prior to a vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, to honour the victims of a fatal bus accident in Humboldt, Sask. on Sunday, April 8, 2018.

Hours later Davis, like so many others in hockey’s rippling circles, struggled to find words for what he was feeling. Shock intermingles with grief, and grief rubs up against numbness: “It’s so hard to comprehend,” he says, at last.

Shortly after the crash, Davis called Bill Chow, his counterpart in the Saskatchewan junior league. In that conversation, the commissioners confessed that what happened had lived in their nightmares for years.

Every winter, Davis checks the weather obsessively. As MJHL buses roll over snow-bitten highways from Waywayseecappo to Winnipeg, he prays that the weather holds, that they get where they’re going safely.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, to honour the victims of a fatal bus accident in Humboldt, Sask. on Sunday, April 8, 2018.

“I can tell you, I’ve thought about this multiple times a year,” Davis says. “Usually I don’t think about it until the winter hits, and then I’m like, ‘Oh, my God’. I’ve dreaded this, and I still dread it, because it could happen again.

“I don’t talk to anybody about that,” he adds. “I never have.”

And Davis put his time in on the road, when he was young. He grew up in Flin Flon, playing there for the famed Bombers, later playing for the Brandon Wheat Kings before he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1977.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS Humboldt Broncos' Nick Shumlanski, who was released from hospital earlier today, is comforted by a mourner during a vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, to honour the victims of a fatal bus accident in Humboldt, Sask. on Sunday, April 8, 2018.

Close calls? Yeah, he had a few. Once, his team was riding the bus on the long journey to Kamloops, B.C. It was snowing, and the bus lost its grip on the road and started fishtailing. Its back wheels veered towards the chasm.

“As it was sliding I could look out and see the drop-off,” he says. “It scared the shit out of all of us.”

Almost every junior hockey alumnus has a story like this, Davis thinks, but close calls don’t make headlines. Besides, white-knuckle drives are a fact of life, on Canada’s lonely winter roads. Usually, everyone involved walks away fine.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS Mayor of Humboldt, Rob Muench, speaks on stage during a vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, to honour the victims of a fatal bus accident in Humboldt, Sask. on Sunday, April 8, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

So when you’re young, you can shrug it off, sometimes. On Sunday morning, Davis spoke with some of his former teammates, drawn by that string that once bound them together. They talked about all of those long-ago bus rides.

“What I said was, I don’t personally ever recall being fearful on the bus,” he says. “It just did not enter my mind.”

You know how life changes, when you become a parent? How a world that once felt safe now suddenly seems rife with hidden dangers? It’s sort of like that, when you’re running a league. Worst-case scenarios dance in your mind.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS Hockey commentators Don Cherry, top row left, Ron MacLean, top row centre, and former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, bottom row centre, join other mourners attending a vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, to honour the victims of a fatal bus accident in Humboldt, Sask. on Sunday, April 8, 2018.

The Broncos are all someone’s sons. They are also, in a way, all of the hockey world’s kids.

● ● ●

That photo of the Broncos, the one that has now flown around the world, was taken just three weeks ago. It was taken on March 24, the night they defeated the Melfort Mustangs to clinch their quarter-final series in five games.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS Mourners attend a vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, to honour the victims of a fatal bus accident in Humboldt, Sask. on Sunday, April 8, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

With that win, the young men had guaranteed their team’s first semifinal appearance in five years.

In this picture, they are crowded together in a dressing room, their faces lit by determined grins and bleach-bright hair. They are beautiful, in the way of youth coming into their power: young lions, new warriors, unstoppable, vital.

The truth is, they are — were, we have to say now, they were — just as fragile as everyone else. Compared to the forces unleashed through the grim calculations of physics, their bodies were just as vulnerable, and ephemeral.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS A young man wipes away tears during a vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, to honour the victims of a fatal bus accident in Humboldt, Sask. on Sunday, April 8, 2018.

All of us come face to face with this fact, in time. Yet for some youthful hockey players, what happened on Friday night was the first time they’ve had to confront the temporality of existence, the way it is so delicately suspended.

So as the Broncos grieved and cared for survivors, others faced the knowledge that it could have been them.

In Manitoba, players from Steinbach and Virden thought about getting on the bus to continue the MJHL’s championship final series. Some of them felt their stomachs churning, their spine gripped by prickling fear.

LIAM RICHARDS / THE CANADIAN PRESS Community members leave a vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, to honour the victims of a fatal bus accident in Humboldt, Sask. on Sunday, April 8, 2018.

This is trauma, and it is real. Many MJHL players are from Saskatchewan, and some played in the SJHL. Some knew the victims, and competed with or against them; even if they didn’t, they may as well have. Hockey is a small world.

By Saturday morning, Davis knew they needed to pause the league playoffs. Not for long, only a few days, but enough to give space for grief, and rest. Time to let the players talk, if they need to, and have someone listen.

They will still finish the series. That’s important, Davis says. Because through all this time, through all of the practices and interminable bus rides, that’s what they came together to do — not just the MJHL, but the Humboldt Broncos, too.

“The game will have the power to bring people together,” he says. “We need to show that we support that pain. We can’t do a whole lot else. Our league doesn’t have millions of dollars. What we can do is show we love this game.”

● ● ●

Hours and days after the crash, compassion and bottomless empathy poured out in big and small acts.

In Nipawin, Sask., where the Broncos were scheduled to play that night, a computer store opened its WiFi and doors to offer charging cables to terrified parents. Saskatoon residents offered their homes for families rushing to hospitals.

In an airport, comedian Kelly Taylor — who had been scheduled to perform at a Broncos fundraiser later this month — heard an announcement asking if anyone would give up their seats for the parents of victims, headed to Humboldt.

“They literally didn’t finish the message and there was a line up,” he wrote, on Twitter.

A GoFundMe set up for the Broncos burst with donations. By Sunday afternoon, it had swelled to nearly $4 million, bolstered by donations from NHL teams including the Winnipeg Jets, and the entire Montreal Canadiens roster.

All over hockey, there were pre-game moments of silence. Youth teams wrote “H,” for Humboldt, on the back of their helmets. Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock — a Saskatchewan guy — wept, from his national podium.

“Let’s talk about hockey,” he said, only when he could not speak any more about families, without falling apart.

Yet all these other things, they are hockey too. The open arms, the cash raised: it’s not about the numbers. Four million dollars can’t put broken bodies back together. But it does affirm the connection, and that goes both ways.

Logan Boulet’s family donated his organs. He was 21 years old, his father told Global News, and he signed a donor card on his birthday. At some point on Saturday, six different people got a call that their lives were about to change.

There, right there: whatever money is raised, what one Bronco gave is far more precious than a nation can repay.

So grace now, in the coming days. The stories these young men were writing together — the ones they would have retold over beers decades later, in some lazy summer — now hang unfinished. Now, a nation can pick up the telling.

Time to build their legacy, tragedy transformed to action. For the 15, and the team, we are all Humboldt Broncos.

 

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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