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This article was published 9/4/2018 (815 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Matthieu Gomercic was sleeping at the back of the bus when it happened. Or trying to.
He heard the brakes squeal. No big deal, he thought. Maybe an animal crossing the road. Happens all the time.
"So I didn’t even look," said the 20-year-old forward with the Humboldt Broncos.
A split second later, Gomercic heard a loud bang. Then, for a while, nothingness.
Gomercic was lying on the ground, thrown from the bus out of a roof that was no longer there.
"The next thing I knew," he recalled, "I was picking myself up off the ground and kind of looking around."
Gomeric could move his legs. Good, he thought. But one of his teeth was missing. Did that happen just now or before, he wondered. His face was covered in blood from lacerations.
He could hear some of his teammates screaming in the distance. Then he saw three other teammates walking around, too. Another had a broken leg.
Again, the Winnipeg hockey player’s brain was telling him: good, nothing life-threatening.
That’s when a first responder grabbed Gomercic by the shoulders. "You shouldn’t be walking around," the man said, and they put him in a nearby vehicle and gave him a phone. They told him, "Contact your parents."
Still, Gomercic’s mind was racing to the point of being blurred.
"As I was being taken away, I thought I was sleeping at first," he recalled on Monday, from the Saskatoon University Hospital. "So I was, like, ‘When am I going to wake up? When am I going to wake up?’ I thought it was a dream... a nightmare. Every step was, ‘I’m going to wake up now.’ But I just never, ever woke up.
"I just looked back and I could hear the guys yelling. I knew there was nothing I could do to help them."
Gomercic sat in the vehicle for about five minutes.
"Finally, I kind of came to and started crying," he said.
Of course, much of the world knows what happened now. The bus carrying the Broncos to their playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks had collided with a semi-trailer in the late afternoon Friday. In all, 15 of Gomercic’s teammates, coaches and staff members lost their lives. Another 14 survived.
Gomercic was first taken to a hospital in nearby Tisdale, then later transferred to Saskatoon when doctors noticed some bleeding around his brain. He was also having chest pains.
“I just looked back and I could hear the guys yelling. I knew there was nothing I could do to help them” — Matthieu Gomercic
Rob and Joanne Gomercic were just settled at their Winnipeg home around 6 p.m., watching the TV news, when their son first called. Joanne answered.
Just sketchy details. Matt informed his parents of the accident. Said he suffered some injuries, but he was fine. So was everybody else, he thought.
Then another parent called the Gomercic’s saying Matt was being taken to hospital in an ambulance.
"I said, ‘Can you provide me with anymore information than that?’ He said, ‘No, it seems really bad. There’s going to be good news and bad news,’ " Rob recalled.
Within minutes, Rob and Joanne were on the highway, headed for Tisdale, along with daughter Danica and Matt’s girlfriend, Jessica. Over the course of the eight hour trip, they learned their son had been transferred to Saskatoon.
"We were hoping he didn’t take a turn for the worse," Rob said. "It was pretty nerve-wracking."
They arrived at the hospital around 5 a.m. They met up with a few other parents who hadn’t heard from their boy. Those parents soon found out the worst.
A nurse arrived minutes later and told Rob his son was okay.
"We weren't 100 percent until we saw him, got to touch him and hold him," said Rob, 47, a supervisor with Manitoba Hydro. "When I saw him he was smiling, so I knew he was okay. I was very happy I got a chance to hug him. I can’t even explain in words how I was feeling. A sense of relief. Just to see his smiling face."
“When I saw him he was smiling, so I knew he was okay. I was very happy I got a chance to hug him. I can’t even explain in words how I was feeling. A sense of relief. Just to see his smiling face" — Rob Gomercic
The emotion is still raw. Recounting the story of seeing his son alive, Rob Gomercic begins to sob quietly.
"I would definitely describe it as an emotional rollercoaster," he added. "Very happy that he’s alive... and just really feel sad for the rest of the families that lost their kids, husbands. It’s the worst nightmare you can imagine for the last three days."
Matt suffered a separated shoulder and a concussion. He was released from hospital on Sunday night, and allowed to attend a vigil for the Broncos that was attended by thousands, including the Prime Minister of Canada.
"It was amazing having all those people out for support," Matt Gomercic said. "Even just driving to the rink I could see the overflow (of crowds) in the church and the high school, outside of the rink, which was full. It was unbelievable. It was really something special."
After the vigil, the players who survived the crash, the handful that were able to leave hospital - along with former Broncos players - gathered in the basement of a nearby home. Just to sit, talk and remember.
"We all told stories that helped a lot," Matt said. "There was a lot of laughs, a lot of tears. And a lot of hugging going on. We were just thankful that the people in the room were okay and we just kept praying that the others that are still alive - whether they’re in stable or ICU or whatever - that they’re going to be able to come and share their stories with us down the road."
Ironically, one of the former Broncos in the same basement was Anthony Kapelke - the same player who was traded to the MJHL’s Steinbach Pistons in January of 2016 for future considerations. Gomercic played for the Pistons at the time.
A few weeks later, those future considerations turned out to be... Gomercic.
"He (Kapelke) was quite possibly one of the best people I’ve ever met and I’d just known him for two months," said Gomercic, who spent the last two seasons in Humboldt. "I ended up talking to him and it helped a lot."
Gomercic has no immediate plans to leave Humboldt, where he’s staying with billets Linsey and Tracy Smith. He commutes every day to the hospital in Saskatoon and will continue driving the hour there and back every day.
"As long as there’s guys in here I want to keep coming every day, supporting them and being with them," he said. "I know it can’t be easy, what they and their families are going through.
"I think all of us that are here right now are amazed that anybody could come away from that. The bus....there was almost nothing left. We’re beyond thankful that we were able to somehow come out of it. It’s just crazy that where you sat basically choosing what happened to you, right?
"We feel terrible," Gomercic added. "Those were all our friends. But we had no control over anything that happened. It could have ended so much more differently."
"Just talking to each other....has brought so much courage to each and every one of us. I don’t think comfort’s the right word. But it’s just that we feel safe when we’re with each another. We’ve been through this and we can make it through anything now."
Added father Rob: "We’re just going day-by-day. If it’s good for Matthieu mentally to see his teammates and be around him we’ll stay as long as we need to."
But the scars, the emotional pain, won’t heal soon. The young hockey player who somehow survived knows that, too. He plans to speak with specialists to help cope with his trauma.
You see, even now, Matthieu Gomercic still sends texts to his dead teammates. He pushes the send button and waits.
"I really miss everybody," he said, still sitting in a hospital recovery room, refusing to leave his injured teammates. "I’ve sent a lot of these guys texts hoping that maybe, somehow, I’d get an answer. It’s holding on to this sense of belief that maybe they’re out there somewhere. You know, like this is just a dream where somebody’s just ended up sneaking off somehow and now he’s just been found. Something like that."
When Gomercic spoke, in the end, it was closer to a whisper.
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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Updated on Monday, April 9, 2018 at 11:43 PM CDT: Adds photos
12:25 AM: Fixes typos
12:34 AM: Adds final edits
April 10, 2018 at 9:46 AM: Modifies description of collision