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This article was published 7/4/2018 (533 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Winnipeg’s Matthieu Gomercic was one of 14 members of the Humboldt Broncos who survived a horrific bus accident Friday night that claimed 15 of his teammates in what is being described as one of the worst tragedies in Canadian sports history.
Gomercic, 20, is a forward who joined the Broncos in 2016 after being traded by the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Steinbach Pistons. Gomercic had come up through the Winnipeg minor hockey system, previously playing for the Winnipeg Warriors bantam and midget clubs.
Gomercic suffered several lacerations, an injured jaw and broken shoulder, according to Donna Mikkola, who was the player’s billet family in Steinbach.
Mikkola confirmed Gomercic’s condition Friday night via Matthieu’s parents, Joanne and Rob, who are in Saskatchewan with their son. They couldn’t be reached for comment on Saturday.
Mikkola said Gomercic’s parents — like the other Broncos’ family members — could only wait in complete fear until word arrived of their son’s condition.
"Honestly, I can’t imagine what they (the family) have gone through," Mikkola said. "I don’t think anybody can imagine unless you’re there. I mean, I know what it feels like to hear about it and go through the devastation for a short time of not knowing if Matt was OK or not.
"But I just can’t imagine what everyone out there is going through."
Mikkola said Gomercic was a billet in their home for two years.
"He’s an awesome young man," she said. "He’s part of our family, just like one of our sons. Matt still has a key to our house and he’s welcome anytime."
Pistons head coach and GM Paul Dyck described Gomercic as "a great kid."
"He was always very coachable," Dyck added. "Very, very polite. Obviously, we’re very grateful that he’s alive."
The Broncos team bus collided with a semi-trailer unit just south of Nipawin, in northeastern Saskatchewan, where the players and coaches were travelling for a playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks.
"It’s disbelief. It’s shock. The deepest grief that you can ever imagine," Broncos president Kevin Garinger told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix later Friday night. "Our organization will never be the same.
"Our thoughts and prayers — everything we have in terms of our energy is directed toward trying to deal with, cope with the loss that’s occurred here."
Dyck said he was informed of the accident shortly before the Pistons took to the ice Friday night to host the Virden Oil Capitals in Game 1 of the MJHL final.
As a former Western Hockey League player with the Moose Jaw Warriors, Dyck, now 46, has spent almost 30 years riding the bus during time in the MJHL, WHL, IHL and Europe.
"For me, it immediately brought back memories of Swift Current (where four players of the WHL’s Broncos died in a crash in 1986)," Dyck said. "That was a couple years before I came to Moose Jaw. I had a friend on that bus and knew several of the players. They survived."
That friend was former Winnipegger Sheldon Kennedy.
"We’re on the bus a lot. I mean, my wife waited after the game and she just said, ‘That could be anybody. That could be any team,’" Dyck added. "It’s going to hit home with every team that travels."
"The hockey community is so small. Right now everybody’s hearts are so heavy."
Dyck addressed his team after Friday night’s game, saying there’s "no question" it will have a lingering emotional impact on his players.
"It was very emotional," he noted. "We have a player who played in Humboldt. I’m friends with their coach (Darcy Haugen, who died in the crash). The game is so intertwined at every level. And we’re a neighbouring province. You’ve had guys that have played in either league. Some of them played midget together.
"I think a lot of them are a little overwhelmed. It’s uncharted territory for most of us. Time will tell how it impacts, but..."
Manitoba Hockey executive director Peter Woods said the tragedy hits close to home to players and coaches who criss-cross the Prairies in the dead of winter, from one community to another.
"I’m still having a tough time wrapping my head around it," Woods said. "It affects everyone that’s associated with the game. Riding on a bus — when you’re playing on a midget level or bantam level or above — it’s a regular mode of transportation. So you’re conscious of those concerns. When you hear something like that happened it confirms your worst nightmares."
Woods said the use of buses for travel by teams is, as a rule, both more efficient and safer. There for a necessity. "You have to use buses because it’s safer in that getting 25 people on a bus is safer than getting in eight cars," he said.
Added Dyck: "You feel safe on a bus. It’s higher up. You kind of take it for granted that you’ll ride safely."
In an interveiw with CBC's The National, Kennedy, a former member of the MJHL’s Winnipeg South Blues (1985-86) and Manitoba Moose (1998-99), said the Humboldt accident brought back memories of his mother waiting in Regina for the Broncos’ bus to arrive — only to be told of the accident and four deaths. But no names.
"I just remember the chaos and the fear," Kennedy said. "I remember talking to my mom and she’s standing at the ticket wicket in Regina waiting for the team to get there."
Parents were left frantic, thinking, "Is it my child? Is it not my child? Whose child is it?", Kennedy said.
Kennedy, who grew up in Elkhorn, said the impact of the tragedy will especially reverberate in small communities on the Prairies where hockey is king.
"It’s critical for us to put one foot in front of the other and take this thing one day at a time," he said. "When we look at these communities, when we look at a Humboldt… hockey is critical to these towns. They revolve around hockey."
For example, the first reaction of Humboldt residents, upon hearing the news, was to gather at the local arena.
"That’s hard to understand to people who aren’t from these prairie towns," he noted. "I grew up in a small town. And I can tell you that hockey is a critical piece to the heartbeat of these communities.
"I know that the resiliency of these communities, of the people, they will get through this."
Although Woods doesn’t know Gomercic personally, he believes even the surviving players will have to deal with much more than their physical injuries.
"Physically, I believe he (Gomercic) is fine, but there’s still going to be some residual to that," Woods said. "He’s lost a lot of teammates and friends. That could be a long road to recovery for them (survivors), both from a physical and mental perspective."
Meanwhile, Dyck said his players have been offered any support they need. A team chaplain met with players after practice on Saturday.
In addition, Game 2 of the MJHL Final, scheduled for Virden on Sunday night, has been postponed.
In a statement, MJHL commissioner Kim Davis said: "Out of the deepest respect to the Humboldt Broncos organization, its players and parents, the SJHL and its member clubs, we do not believe that Sunday’s MJHL playoff game should be played as scheduled."
No date yet has been set for rescheduling of Game 2.
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.
Updated on Saturday, April 7, 2018 at 4:02 PM CDT: Byline added
4:51 PM: Death toll updated to 15
5:17 PM: Updated to include postponing of Game 2 of MJHL final
11:14 PM: Edited