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Opinion

Broncos tragedy a reminder about what really matters

Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, is shown in Humboldt, Sask., on Saturday, April 7, 2018. RCMP say 14 people are dead and 14 people were injured Friday after a truck collided with a bus carrying a junior hockey team to a playoff game in northeastern Saskatchewan. Police say there were 28 people including the driver on board the Humboldt Broncos bus when the crash occurred at around 5 p.m. on Highway 35 north of Tisdale. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards</p>

Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, is shown in Humboldt, Sask., on Saturday, April 7, 2018. RCMP say 14 people are dead and 14 people were injured Friday after a truck collided with a bus carrying a junior hockey team to a playoff game in northeastern Saskatchewan. Police say there were 28 people including the driver on board the Humboldt Broncos bus when the crash occurred at around 5 p.m. on Highway 35 north of Tisdale. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/4/2018 (852 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It all seems so trivial now: it was 1 a.m. on the morning of April 30, 2007 and the players of the Humboldt Broncos were in tears.

The Broncos were the best team in Canadian junior A hockey that season. They had lost only 10 games during the regular season and headed into that year’s playoffs looking like a favourite to win what would have been the franchise’s second national championship in four years.

Instead, they had just been eliminated by the Selkirk Steelers in the most painful way imaginable, losing Game 7 of that year’s Anavet Cup in quadruple overtime.

Just a handful of spectators remained at Selkirk Recreation Complex by the time the game ended at 12:43 a.m. The coffee had run out in the first overtime period and the spectators who stuck around were almost as exhausted as the players when Selkirk forward Jason Frykas slid a goal-mouth pass to linemate Evan Walsh, who converted with a one-timer over sprawled Humboldt netminder Nathan Heinen at 8:25 of the fourth overtime period.

"I think," Humboldt’s head coach at the time, Dean Brockman, told me that night, "that was probably one of the greatest junior "A" games ever played."

It was all of that. But that was of no consolation to the Broncos players around Brockman, who 20 minutes after the game I can recall were still sitting in their locker stalls staring at the floor, many of them openly weeping.

It was a devastating loss for the Broncos franchise — and for many of those young men that night, it would have seemed like the worst thing that ever happened to them.

They had no idea.

Last Friday, another Broncos team boarded a bus in Humboldt, bound for another must-win playoff game. They also had no idea — that a short time later many of them would be dead, after a semi-trailer collided with their bus near Tisdale, Sask., killing 15 and wounding 14 others.

Those young men would have had no idea as they boarded that bus the most important decision of their lives would be choosing the seat they sat in: sit in the back and you probably lived Friday, sit in the front and you probably died.

Aerial photos of the crash scene served as a stark reminder of the fickle lives we all lead: the front of the bus had been almost sheared off in the collision with the tractor trailer. That’s why two coaches, a team statistician and the team broadcaster — as well as the driver — were among the dead: coaches, media and support staff always sit at the front on team buses.

It’s been that way for as long as teams have travelled on buses. It was a death sentence Friday.

The scale of the loss is almost incomprehensible, which is of course why we spent the weekend as a country trying to make sense of it.

Hockey parents talked about now adding "horrifying bus crash" to CTE and long list of other risks that come with allowing your kid to play Canada’s national game.

NHL players talked about how close this hit to home and how for many of them, a bus just like Humboldt’s served as home for long swaths of their formative years.

And Canadians from every walk of life took to Twitter and coffee shops and kitchen tables to talk about what this tragedy meant to them.

It all added up to not much in the face of a loss this large. Tell the parents who will begin burying their dead all over Western Canada in the days to come that you feel their loss and they will tell you that you are very, very wrong.

But there was a nobility in the effort. And what else could we do anyway? Life is hard. It’s even harder — a lot harder — if it’s meaningless.

And so we seek meaning in the incomprehensible: through faith, if you lean that way. Or through a determination to uncover the facts, so that something like this never happens again, if you lean my way.

It emerged over the weekend that a family of six was previously killed at the same intersection. Aerial photos of the scene that moved over the wire show six commemorative white crosses that stand near the intersection — right alongside a stand of nearby trees that might have obscured the vision of the semi-trailer driver late Friday afternoon as he approached a stop sign.

Did the truck driver stop, not see the Broncos bus approaching because of the trees, and then pull into the intersection only to realize his mistake too late? Was there a brake failure? Something else?

We’ll find out those answers soon enough, I suppose. And we’ll also want answers to why the Saskatchewan Highways Department thought it OK not to deal with trees obscuring drivers’ vision at an intersection in which six people were killed in 1997.

Humboldt mayor Rob Muench, in the Broncos jersey, along with other mourners lay down flower on the stairs that enter to Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, in Humboldt, Sask., on Saturday, April 7, 2018. RCMP say 14 people are dead and 14 people were injured Friday after a truck collided with a bus carrying a junior hockey team to a playoff game in northeastern Saskatchewan. Police say there were 28 people including the driver on board the Humboldt Broncos bus when the crash occurred at around 5 p.m. on Highway 35 north of Tisdale. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards</p>

Humboldt mayor Rob Muench, in the Broncos jersey, along with other mourners lay down flower on the stairs that enter to Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, in Humboldt, Sask., on Saturday, April 7, 2018. RCMP say 14 people are dead and 14 people were injured Friday after a truck collided with a bus carrying a junior hockey team to a playoff game in northeastern Saskatchewan. Police say there were 28 people including the driver on board the Humboldt Broncos bus when the crash occurred at around 5 p.m. on Highway 35 north of Tisdale. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards

So yes, there will be answers forthcoming. But if you’re looking for meaning behind something this meaningless, you won’t find it here.

I tend to think, more and more each day, that Nietzsche was right — we’re born alone, we die alone and the best you can hope for in between is to find someone who helps you feel a little less alone.

And so we seek comfort in symbolism. Saturday night, it was Hockey Night in Canada doing a photo montage of the Humboldt team, set to the tune of the Tragically Hip’s Wheat Kings.

That’s a complicated song with it’s own painful history — it’s about the wrongful murder conviction of Winnipeg’s David Milgaard. All of which is to say that while the symbolism of the song’s chorus line — "Wheat Kings and pretty things" — fits as a tribute to the young men of a rural Prairie hockey team, nothing else does.

That is especially true of the second line in that chorus: "Let’s see what tomorrow brings."

There are no more tomorrows for the 15 men who sat in the wrong seats Friday. And the tomorrows for everyone else who sat on that bus are going to be filled with pain for decades to come.

They will heal, more or less, physically. Humboldt defenceman Ryan Straschnitzki, who underwent seven-hour surgery for a broken back on the weekend and is now paralyzed from the chest down, woke up and told his parents that his new goal is to represent Canada at the Paralympics in sledge hockey.

But mentally, emotionally and spiritually? The survivors are in for a long road ahead.

Sheldon Kennedy told me a few years back that he remains today as haunted by the night in 1986 that he was on the Swift Current Broncos bus that crashed and killed four of his teammates as he is by all the nights his pedophile coach, Graham James, abused him.

There is a guilt, Kennedy explained, that goes with an experience like that. Why did I live, but the guy sitting just up the aisle die?

That’s a lot to live with. But these Broncos won’t quit. Not this time.

They did quit once, famously, back in 1973, forfeiting a playoff series to the Portage Terriers that year in what was the Humboldt franchise’s third year of existence. That story tells you a lot about a town and a franchise that has its priorities in the right place.

History has recorded that the Broncos were no match that year for the much bigger and much more talented Terriers, who went on to win the Centennial Cup that season.

After falling behind in the series and watching three of their players carted off to hospital with broken bones and broken faces, the Broncos decided not to continue, forfeiting the rest of the series and telling officials they felt it was simply "too dangerous" to go on.

There were threats to suspend the Broncos from the league, maybe even all of hockey. But the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association ultimately decided to let it slide after an investigation.

Years later, Ed Perry — a Humboldt resident and former assistant coach — told me the Broncos knew they’d be criticized for quitting in a sport where "quit" is a four-letter word, but they felt the kids’ safety was more important.

"After they forfeited, a lot of people here who hadn’t been at the games thought that they shouldn’t have done it. They felt it was the wrong thing to do," Perry told me in 2007.

"But the people who were there, well, they saw what was going on. Our guys were getting hurt; they were just intimidated right from the start."

It was a lesson learned: the Broncos would never allow themselves to be overmatched — or quit — like that again. The franchise has gone on in the intervening years to become one of the most successful teams in all of junior A hockey, taking down two national titles along the way — the second one coming in 2008, just one year removed from that devastating overtime loss in Selkirk.

Brockman was the coach again in 2008. He told reporters after that year’s playoff run that the pain the team felt in that overtime loss in Selkirk the year before only made the franchise stronger.

"We wanted to prove something," said Brockman, "that we could get through (it) and move on to better things."

They did. And they will again.

But it’s just hard to imagine how right now.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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Updated on Monday, April 9, 2018 at 5:50 PM CDT: updates facts in story

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