The above photo is the only one on this post that belongs to me. I’m not going to identify the rest, though, because this blog isn’t about individuals. Its about a team and a country and a country full of teams and dreams.
I haven’t known what to say since the horrific bus crash on April 6th between a hockey team of Junior players heading up to Nipawin, Saskatchewan and a semi-trailer truck. It has touched me on an incredible number of levels, for so many reasons. 16 people died in the crash, 6 are still hospitalized with 2 remaining in critical condition.
I’ve asked my social media world to share a photo of their tributes to the crash. Photos came in from across Canada and the US. Friends. Family. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces. Hospital staff. Our goalie from our vet med team. Former students of mine and the children of former students of mine. The rest of the photos are theirs, used with permission.
I didn’t know what else to do but I can hopefully use words to express my feelings.
This post is for the little kids who get up early on Saturday mornings or even before school to lace up their skates (or have their moms and dads lace them up for them.) The kids who don’t want to practice drills or skating. The kids who just want to shoot pucks and learn a slapshot. The kids who often got Timmie’s on the way to the rink and then got to enjoy McDonald’s on the way home.
The kids who look up to their coaches as their heros. The same kids who watch hockey games at night and want to grow up to be just like Crosby. They dutifully don their mouth guards and helmets and they learn to play and respect and love the game of hockey.
They are boys and they are girls and they are every color and every ethnicity you can imagine. They dream of professional hockey and while very few reach that level, many become coaches, parents of players, referees, minor hockey board members and host families.
This is for the parents of those little and not-so-little kids. The parents sitting on the bench sipping coffee and hot chocolate during those early-morning practices and games. The parents logging countless miles driving for hours on winter roads to play games and tournaments. The parents who sometimes have to be apart because one kid has to go to Fernie and the other kid has to be in Nelson.
The same parents who listen to their kids complain about the amount of ice time, or about the center who’s a puck-hog and never passes. The parents who try to keep their mouths shut on questionable calls and line changes by the coaching staff.
The parents who work hard to pay for that new pair of skates, the private power skating sessions or summer camps halfway across the country.
They are the same parents who watch their kids load into the bus. Or they’re the house-parents billeting a player who loads onto the bus. The parents who all expect to see their hockey player again.
This post is for the bus drivers of these teams who all love their jobs. Like my maid of honor’s dad, who drove for the Nelson Junior Leafs for years. Over mountain passes covered in snow with noise and adrenaline charging in the seats before the games and peaceful slumber in the wee hours of the morning on the way home.
Bus drivers who all have real lives and families and other jobs but they love being the man behind the wheel for these teams. Every player and coaching member knows the bus driver. Every host family knows them. They are as much a part of the team as anyone else and it breaks my heart knowing the Humboldt Broncos lost their dedicated bus driver in the crash.
I write today for the small towns who have Junior A or B hockey teams. I grew up in one of those towns and my friends who are still in Grand Forks continue to root for and believe in our Grand Forks Bruins.
It was just what many Canadians do on home game nights. At school on Fridays we’d say, “you going to the game?” Players from other provinces and even countries play on small town junior hockey teams. Every year we’d get new players at the high school and we’d all sort of try to help them fit in, even if they stuck mostly together and even if they might be traded the following week.
This is for Grand Forks, BC. Nelson. Creston. Fernie. Kimberley. Trail (even though I’m from Grand Forks and we’re not supposed to be nice to Trail.) In this case its okay because we are all the same.
This is for the coaches of hockey players, who help the little kids when they hurt themselves and have tears streaming down their cheeks. The coaches who try desperately to decipher what their little Atom player is trying to convey with his mouth guard in.
Its for the high school hockey coaches who have to hold back the comments when their players are held hostage by their own hormones.
The coaches who listen to the parents with gripes about ice time, some other kid, or how the ref screwed up a call. The same coaches who hope the team starts to get along better, or that the girl’s team can put the drama aside for just one game let alone a season.
The coaches who have to teach the importance of skating, fast starts and sharp stops, stick handling, checking, respecting the refs and passing all while their charges just want to take slap shots on net.
The coaches who want every kid, regardless of their skill level to get a goal this season and really feel like they are a part of something bigger. Something special. Something they will pass onto their own children in the future.
This is also for Saskatchewan, the province I called sort-of home for my 4 years of veterinary school. While the players of the Humboldt Broncos came from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, they all called Saskatchewan home this season, too.
If you have never been there you might picture it as a vast open space with incessant winds and bitter cold. You’re not incorrect but there is so much more. There is the scent of the prairies on that wind- of grains and prairie grass and hope.
There is the ice arena and curling rink in every single town along with one or two great cafes that all serve poutine with home-made gravy.
Saskatchewan is full of hard-working people who learn they have to drive to get anywhere. Its nothing for a team of players to travel for hours for playoff hockey because most of them and their host families have been doing that all of their lives just to hit the big grocery stores.
Saskatchewan was good to me and it has become a part of my mosaic.
Saskatchewan has had to bear the weight of this terrible tragedy but I am given strength from the fact every other province has stepped in to help hold their Canadian teammate up.
Its for the figure skaters who share the same small town ice rinks with the hockey clubs. They often share one sheet of ice with minor hockey, junior hockey and adult hockey and everyone has to get along.
The hockey players at school would bitch about the holes our toe picks created with flips and lutzes. They’d complain when our home club would host a competition or test session and monopolize the whole rink for 2 to 3 days. And they’d blame their early morning or late night ice times on the fact the skating club got a lot of prime time hours.
But they would also sit in the stands before a game taping their sticks while watching the sparkly skaters practice in front of them. In private, as we got older, they would admit having respect for our mastery of the blade and the fact we wiped out without padding. And then we’d get back up and try again.
This is for the fans out there who have never put on a pair of skates in their life. There are millions of you world-wide and there is nothing like a die-hard hockey fan. Some are fans of a particular player or a certain team. Others just love hockey and change allegiances each season, or even within a season.
Most just love the game with its fast paced action, the blistering flight of the puck, the plays, the camaraderie on the bench, the potential for fisticuffs and the unexpected results when a young team, a rookie or an old veteran in his final season step up and create a great story.
This is for everyone, everywhere who put a hockey stick outside their door or a jersey on their back in honor and remembrance of a bus carrying hockey players, coaches, a radio play-by-play announcer, a physical trainer, and a statistician to Nipawin for a must-win playoff game.
Its for all of you who shed tears even if you can’t spell Humboldt correctly. Its for the NHL players and the Stanley Cup itself who visited the injured in Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital.
Its for the outpouring of love and connection all wrapped around watching players race around an icy surface chasing a little black orb while following rules and respecting other players. Its for our collective love of the game. Its for hockey.
Most importantly, this is for the players and team members on the bus that crashed on a sunny early evening highway along the flat prairie roads by Tisdale, Saskatchewan. For the survivors, their families, their host families and for the souls who were lost. For the emergency crews on the scene and the hospital staff who had to watch team players struggle to figure out what had happened. And who had been lost.
Thank-you to my friends & family for their touching tribute photos. May we all forever stay “HumboldtStrong.