As big as hockey is in Canada, you don’t have to go far to connect with anyone who has a connection to just about any other team in the sport.
Friday’s tragic events at a highway intersection just north of Tisdale, Sask. proved that when a bus carrying 29 members of the Humboldt Broncos junior A team collided with a fully loaded semi-truck. Sixteen people on the bus died, including 10 hockey players. Also among the dead were the head coach, assistant coach, volunteer statistician, play-by-play broadcaster, bus driver and athletic therapist who passed away on Wednesday.
“There is just an unfathomable amount of reach for something like this,” said Canmore Eagles GM and head coach Andrew Milne. “It is just one degree of separation in the hockey world.”
Eagles players Quinton Ong and Tian Rask both played for Humboldt at the end of the 2016–17 season after completing their midget AAA seasons. They both lost many good friends on Friday.
Rask listed off Brayden Camrud, Evan Thomas and Xavier Labelle, who at the time had been misidentified as one of the deceased. They all came up together through bantam and midget.
Rask said he spent time with the Thomases over the weekend.
“A group of my buddies went over (to the Thomases) … and we just all cried,” said Rask. “Then we had a toast to Evan.”
Rask said he has been approached by multiple counsellors to make sure of his own mental well-being.
Eagles goaltender Thomas Davis also lost a good friend in Jaxon Joseph, the son of former NHL player Chris Joseph. The pair played together for one season with the St. Albert Blues Midget AA team.
“He lived a few houses down from me,” Davis told Postmedia Network from his home in Spruce Grove.
“I played midget hockey with him and he was a big part of that team,” he said. “He was a big, funny guy who was always lighthearted in the dressing room. Guys used to throw shots at him because the year before he played house league, but he never let it get to him.”
Those are just a few of the one-degree separation of the accident’s impact on our local athletes.
“The reach is unbelievable in how it affects everybody,” said Milne, who has heard from others who have never played hockey but are neighbours of families that lost a son.
Milne, who also grew up in Saskatchewan and played his minor hockey in the province, knew many of the players on the team through hockey camps and scouting missions. He also watched head coach Darcy Haugan work his way up through the ranks.
“It resonates and hits close to home,” said Milne. “The coach and I developed a friendship over the years when he started coaching junior B in Peace River.”
This is the second time Milne has had been just one degree from a hockey tragedy. When the Swift Current Broncos lost four players in a bus accident on icy stretch of highway in December 1986 it was his grandfather that was the attending physician.
“My grandfather was the doctor at the hospital that night,” said Milne. “To hear my grandfather tell stories of that night: the horror and the impact.”
Milne would go on to play for the WHL team 10 years later and said even then the memories were still fresh in everyone’s mind.
“It was part of our daily life, sitting on that bus for hours as hockey teams do,” he said.
He knows one other thing as well.
“I was in Saskatchewan for so many years, both as a player and a coach, and I have all the faith in the world in those Saskatchewan people that they take care of everyone,” said Milne.
Locally, Milne said the organization has reached out to all the Eagles players, offering them the support of the team chaplain Steve Sellers to get through this period.
“We have reached out to them and let them know if they need help don’t hesitate,” said Milne.
As for moving forward, Rask said he now just wants to dedicate his game to his lost friends.
“I want to make them proud … I know they are up there watching and would want us not worry about them too much,” he said. “That is not going to be easy.”
Anybody wishing to make a financial donation to assist the players and families affected by this tragedy can do so at ca.gofundme.com/funds-for-humboldt-broncos. The original goal was $4 million but as of noon on Tuesday, more than 93,000 individuals and businesses from around the globe have donated more than $7.3 million.