This Humboldt Broncos tragedy is our worst nightmare

John Cairns' News Watch

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Today, I want to try to provide a sense for you about why the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy has struck such a chord for people in this community.

For people in this province, this is surely one of those “where were you when you heard the news” type of moments.

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Eerily enough for me, I was on the road. I was coming back to the Battlefords after spending a day off in Saskatoon.

I was on Highway 16, listening to the radio while keeping my eye on the road looking for any animals or drunk drivers that might show up. 

It had been a cold day, but it was still daylight and it was an otherwise clear and beautiful Saskatchewan afternoon.

Just as I was approaching North Battleford I was listening to Rod Pedersen’s radio show. It was the usual sports topics for most of it.

But near the end, Pedersen relayed a report that the Humboldt Broncos team bus had been in an accident, and that their playoff game with the Nipawin Hawks was cancelled!

As a proud owner of an SJHL press pass, that news definitely got my attention.

As the show was ending, Pedersen provided some additional news on the situation before saying goodnight. It absolutely sounded like a grim situation.

“It doesn’t look like it’s going to be a great weekend,” he said.

When I got home I tuned in more radio stations for any live reports I could find. There was a news bulletin on CK 750 from Melfort, and the announcer seemed to be in tears as he provided the latest update.      

This was one case where it was agonizing waiting for any firm details about how bad this situation really was. The pictures on Twitter from the crash scene looked horrific. I had gone over to our interim editor’s house by this point, where we listened to CKOM’s live coverage and received email updates from the RCMP about what was happening. Meanwhile, I was sending out updates and re-tweets on our News-Optimist Twitter feed.

It was very late in the night when the RCMP finally confirmed the number of fatalities on the Broncos bus: 14. Basically, it was almost half the Broncos hockey team. The rest were in the hospital.

This was a total disaster, without even knowing the names of the people killed. It was far worse than the Swift Current bus crash of 1986 in which four players died.

It kept getting worse. We learned that the death toll included the team captain, the head coach, the stats guy and even the play-by-play guy. We later learned that another crash victim died, pushing the death toll up to 15.

By Sunday, the names of the victims were public knowledge. At least, so we thought. Monday morning, we learned of an epic screw-up by the provincial coroner’s office in which the name of one of the deceased was mixed up with one of those still alive.

By the time I tuned in Pedersen’s radio show again Monday, which was turned over to full coverage of the tragedy, the sense I got was that the feeling of shock and grief had turned to anger.

The coroner’s screw-up was surely the tipping point. People were at their wit’s end coming to terms with this.

I had reached my own tipping point a day earlier, when I shut off the live broadcast of the vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena after 15 minutes. It was too much to take.  

Why are we feeling these emotions? Simply put, this is a historic tragedy, and it hits way close to home.

From a sporting standpoint, this is a disaster on an unimaginable scale. 

Relevant comparisons would be to the Marshall football team plane crash of 1970 (which famously inspired the movie “We Are Marshall”), or the Manchester United crash in 1958, or the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash of 2011. That is the scale that we are talking about here.

Pedersen was saying on his show that this was our “9/11.” Maybe it’s not a perfect analogy, but in terms of emotional impact it is.

This is “9/11,” our “death of Princess Diana,” our “Kennedy assassination.” The crash scene, at that rural intersection near Tisdale, has become our province’s World Trade Center, our Paris tunnel, our grassy knoll.

In all these incidents, the aftermath and outpouring from the public went on for days. The conspiracy theories also started to fly, each time.

That is also happening here, with people speculating about whether the truck driver was distracted when the collision happened, or was blinded by the sun, or couldn’t see past the trees that were in the way, or whatever it was that could have caused this disaster.

The outpouring has been incredible. The GoFundMe response has been in the millions – I am not going to mention the number here, because it will surely be even higher by the time this is published.

Why does this hit home so hard for so many people?
In part, it’s because so many of our families have either ridden on the bus as kids or have sent our own kids out on the bus to various sporting events. And there is always this nagging fear about what might happen.

The victims in this tragedy were mainly young people. Kids, basically.

From a Battlefords standpoint, this hits us hard because Humboldt, like the Battlefords, is an SJHL community.

And we know what it’s like having an SJHL team here: they become part of the community, with players going to various community and charity functions and the like. 

The Humboldt Broncos have not only been a fellow SJHL member; they have been a division rival for years. Back when Kindersley was playing in the other division, Humboldt was in fact the North Stars’ main rivals for a time.

I remember the 2012 playoffs during Kevin Hasselberg’s first season as coach of the North Stars. The North Stars had a brilliant season that year, but unfortunately could not get past the Humboldt Broncos in the division final.

Many SJHL squads have a similar story to tell about playing the Broncos over the years. They are to the SJHL what the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Yankees and the Boston Celtics are to their leagues.

Which is what makes this tragedy even more unbelievable.

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