On the side of the road somewhere in the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan, a DVD of the hockey movie “Slap Shot” lies in the mud. The disc is broken in two. Not far away, an abandoned Tim Hortons coffee cup has made itself a home on the frost-covered ground. These artifacts belonged to the Humboldt Broncos’ junior hockey team. On April 5, the Broncos – whose members range from 16 to 21 years-old – were travelling to the Junior Hockey League playoffs. They never made it to the rink.
En route to the playoffs, their bus collided with a semitrailer. The Humboldt Broncos lost ten players and five members of their staff on the site of a horrific bus crash, with another staff member succumbing to injuries in the hospital days later. Twenty-nine people were on the bus. Thirteen survived.
As news of the bus crash reverberated around the sports world, the devastating effects were felt across Canada. National flags stood at half-mast three provinces over in southwestern Ontario. Canadians across the country placed hockey sticks outside their doors in a tribute to the players who lost their lives. Overseas, Canadian soldiers deployed in Afghanistan put hockey sticks outside their barracks.
On the opening day of the Stanley Cup Finals, coaching staff wore green bows on their lapels in a show of solidarity with Humboldt. The Anaheim Ducks and Boston Bruins have dedicated efforts to raising money and support for the victims and their families. Hockey superstar and Pittsburgh Penguins Captain Sidney Crosby requested that custom Penguins jerseys be made for the surviving team members.
Outside of hockey, rapper Drake wore a Humboldt Broncos jersey to one of the NBA Playoff Series between the Toronto Raptors and the Washington Wizards. Internationally, a GoFundMe fundraiser dedicated to the surviving team members and the families of the victims has raised over $8 million so far, with donations from over 40 different countries.
The love that Canadians have for hockey is somewhat of a farce to foreigners. However, the game itself is more than just a game to Canadians – it’s part of the very fabric of our culture, and it pulls the country together in a way that few other things can. For many, winter’s Saturday nights are synonymous with “Hockey Night in Canada”. Growing up, Timbits Hockey is our Little League. In the offseason, you will often have to brake when driving through residential areas to give rollerblade-clad kids the time to move their hockey nets out of the street so you can pass.
From 2006-2013, the reverse side of the Canadian $5 bill depicted a group of children playing hockey, along with an excerpt from “The Hockey Sweater,” a short story by Roch Carrier. It reads, “The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places – the school, the church, and the skating rink – but our real life was on the skating rink.” Perhaps this culture is the reason why this tragedy has made Canada, with a population of over 36 million, feel like a tightly-packed stadium of mourners. Not only is the senseless loss of life a devastating event in and of itself, but the familiarity and comfort of the institution of youth hockey has brought the tragedy into our homes. These players are not just names in the news – they are our friends, brothers and sons.
After the accident, the league put all playoff games on hold until the Broncos organization unanimously voted to continue the postseason, marking a delayed start for the championship with a gaping hole left where the Broncos would have stood. When it was announced that the playoffs would indeed continue in the wake of the tragedy, the league issued a powerful statement to the public: “The power of healing is in the game.”
As the playoff season begins across all levels of the sport, the memory of the lives lost in the tragic bus crash has taken center ice; a fitting tribute to the boys who never made it to their own championships.
Featured Photo: Hockey sticks are set outside a house in New Brunswick, each representing a life lost. @OENGELAND/TWITTER