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Humboldt billet of Winnipegger shares the team's pain

<p>Members of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team in a photo posted to the team Twitter feed March 24, 2018 after a playoff win over the Melfort Mustangs.</p>

TWITTER-@HUMBOLDTBRONCOS

Members of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team in a photo posted to the team Twitter feed March 24, 2018 after a playoff win over the Melfort Mustangs.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/4/2018 (851 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Linsey Smith attended his first Humboldt Broncos hockey game at the age of two.

Or Smith could have been three, he said. Hey, it's been a long time.

Matthieu Gomercic</p>

Matthieu Gomercic

"I felt a connection with the Humboldt Broncos since the very first game," added Smith, who will turn 50 in a few weeks. "I was there because my uncle played on the team from the beginning (in 1970). I've seen at least one Humboldt Broncos game every year since they started."

So when Smith and his wife Tracy, along with their four young boys, now ages 5 to 15, moved to Humboldt from the nearby family farm in 2013, his sons had only one caveat to agreeing: They had to get a Bronco.

It was a rocky start. The first billet assigned to the family was traded two weeks later.

"I've heard lots of (billet) parents say it's like they become one of your own kids," Smith explained. "I've felt like that literally days into the very first one. My wife and my kids cried when the first one that was only at our house for two weeks. When he left my wife said we were done because she's not going to be able to take heartbreak over and over, when a player left or got traded.

"But we decided to take one more chance."

That one chance turned out to be a young man named Anthony Kapelke, who stayed for 2 1/2 years before being traded to the Steinbach Pistons in January of 2016 for "future considerations."

In Steinbach, Kapelke was befriended by a Pistons teammate, Matthieu Gomercic, a power forward who was born and raised in Winnipeg. Over the remaining months of the season, the two teenaged hockey players bonded.

Go figure that later that summer, Gomercic would be the "future consideration" dealt to the Broncos. Given that Gomercic was essentially replacing Kapelke on the team, the Smiths figured they could replace him in their basement, too.

So Gomercic arrived at the Smith's doorstep in the fall of 2016.

"Matthieu is -- I don't want to sound corny -- but he's the kindest soul ever," Smith said. "I've never seen anybody so polite. And it's legitimate polite. When Matthieu says 'thank you', he means it. And he says it all the time.

"He sits there and he likes to talk. He's part of the family. We love having him here. Our kids love him. My youngest (Brock) is five and Matthieu is one of his best friends. They play mini-sticks and they play baseball. Matt never played baseball so our five-year-old is training him.

<p>Matthieu Gomercic was traded from the Steinbach Pistons to Humboldt Broncos in May 2016. </p>

(TWITTER)

Matthieu Gomercic was traded from the Steinbach Pistons to Humboldt Broncos in May 2016.

"That's what Brock says, at least."

It wasn't long before Smith learned Gomercic is billingual. He's quiet and shy, until he gets to know you. Then he'll talk your ear off.

He wants to be a teacher, maybe in phys-ed. And his ultimate goal was to maybe aquire a hockey scholarship in college or university.

But that idealic existence was shattered last Friday night, when the Broncos bus collided with a semi-trailer enroute to a playoff game in Nipawin, about a two-hour drive to the north up Highway 35.

In all, there were 15 fatalities. Another 14 passengers on the Broncos bus, including Gomercic, survived. Gomercic suffered a separated shoulder and several lacerations, along with a concussion.

The Smiths were just sitting down around 5 p.m. to have supper when the phone rang. It was Gomercic's father, Rob, calling from Winnipeg with the initial news. They'd heard from Matthieu, and he seemed okay, and was being taken to hospital in nearby Tisdale.

Within minutes, Linsey and Tracy were on the road. They weren't as panicked as many other family members who -- even hours after the crash -- had no clue about the fate of their loved ones.

The Smiths stayed in Tisdale until 1 a.m., when Gomercic was transferred to a hospital in Saskatoon. Then they returned to Humboldt, as the Gomercic family raced from Winnipeg to Saskatoon that same night.

The rest has been essentially shock management, beginning with Gomeric's realization that he was alive. Hospital staff tried to shield the hockey player from the tragic details at first, but eventually he saw photos of the accident wreckage on social media.

How could he have walked away from that?

"Matt has talked about that from 15 minutes after I'd first seen him," Smith noted. "He saw a lot and I think his brain is still processing it all."

Smith said the appearance of Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHL player who survived the Swift Current Broncos bus crash in December, 1986 - which took the lives of four players - was a starting point for the emotional healing to come.

"That was really good," he said. "Those men who lived through that in '86 in Swift Current...they provided more for those boys than a lot of people could."

Kennedy's support only served to remind Smith that when the Humboldt Broncos first became a Junior A team in 1970 -- before they went on to become the most successful team in Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League history -- their first uniforms were hand-me-downs from Swift Current's WHL club.

"It's not a coincidence we have the same name," he said. "It seems crazy how they can be connected again almost 50 years after they (the Humboldt Broncos) started. To have the same thing happen again? That's a little beyond."

The pain of a hockey-related tragedy inflicted on the community is now another common experience.

"We went to that vigil the other night (Sunday) and I felt guilty beyond belief. Minutes before it started I saw Matt walked in the building and I could feel a smile coming across my face... I had to fight hard to make that stop. Because so many people had lost someone. And for anybody to see a smile on my face...I couldn't let that happen." — Linsey Smith

And it hasn't been easy. The Smith's neighours in Humboldt, Devin and Rene Cannon, were billeting three Broncos players. Originally, they thought all three had died in the accident. Only a couple days later, it was revealed that one of those players, Xavier Labelle, had been originally misidentified by the coroner's office and was still alive. Another of his teammates, Parker Tobin, had passed.

Asked how long it might take before his small prairie city returns to a sense of normal, Smith replied: "I was thinking about that lots. Is it a week? Is it two weeks? I don't really know."

But when he dropped his eldest boy off at school this morning, he noticed a large group of media still huddled near the arena. And RCMP officers standing at the door of the school. So normal might take longer, Smith thought.

"It can't be easy," he said. "I know it's not easy for the ones who lost a loved one. But I think it's going to be a different kind of hard -- and real hard -- for those who didn't lose someone. I've felt it a ton already.

"We went to that vigil the other night (Sunday) and I felt guilty beyond belief. Minutes before it started I saw Matt walked in the building and I could feel a smile coming across my face," Smith added, his voice breaking.  "And I had to fight hard to make that stop. Because so many people had lost someone. And for anybody to see a smile on my face...I couldn't let that happen."

In speaking to the Free Press on Monday, Gomercic said he plans to continue commuting from the Smith's home to the Saskatoon hospital where many of his teammates are still recovering. That didn't surprise his billets.

"Their (the Broncos') team motto is, 'Character determines success'," Smith said. "I'm a believer that it's tough times that make character show. Whatever he (Gomercic) tries to do he'll be successful because he's all character. That's what he is.

"We've let him know that he can stay in our house as long as he needs to. He doesn't have to leave until he's ready."

There are four hockey sticks sitting on the Smith's front porch now, one for each of their boys. It's part of a memorial for the Broncos playing out in homes across the country.

Others are leaving their porch lights on -- a nod to a tradition among many billet families to leave the lights on and the door unlocked until their players come home safely.

On the night of the accident, when the Smiths finally returned home, Tracy asked her husband, "Are you leaving the door unlocked?"

Her husband replied, "Yes. Matt's not home yet."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @randyturner15

Randy Turner

Randy Turner
Reporter

Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.

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History

Updated on Tuesday, April 10, 2018 at 5:51 PM CDT: adds thumbnail

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