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Bus crash in Canada that killed 15 devastates a hockey town

By IAN AUSTEN, CATHERINE PORTER and MATT STEVENS

HUMBOLDT, Saskatchewan – People flooded the sports and social complex in the small Canadian town of Humboldt on Saturday, seeking solace after learning the devastating news that much of the roster of its beloved junior hockey team had been killed, and many others wounded, in a terrible highway crash the day before.

Fifteen people died when a bus carrying the team, the Humboldt Broncos, to a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoff game collided with a tractor-trailer near Tisdale, where two rural highways intersect, late Friday afternoon. The other 14 people aboard were injured. The team’s head coach, Darcy Haugan, was among the dead.

“The worst nightmare has happened,” said the league’s president, Bill Chow, at an emotional news conference Saturday at the complex, where the team was scheduled to return to play a home game Sunday night. Instead, the town will hold a vigil for them there, where the stairs leading into the arena were covered with flowers, teddy bears and hockey jerseys Saturday night.

The team has a storied history, having twice won national championships, and, as a community-owned squad, it holds a central place in this town of about 4,800 people. The players, ages 16 to 21, are mainstays at community fundraisers, hospitals and senior citizen homes. During a big snowstorm this past winter, they all went out to shovel people’s driveways, former Mayor Malcolm Eaton said.

Collision with semi kills 15 on Canadian Junior Hockey League team bus

“The arena is really the focal point of the community,” Eaton said.

Like many small towns across Canada, hockey is stitched into the identity of Humboldt, a farming and potash mining hub 87 miles northeast of Saskatoon. The main road is named Glenn Hall Drive, after its hometown hero who went on to the NHL, winning two Stanley Cups as a goalie for the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Black Hawks.

The Humboldt arena has a capacity of 1,854 – a seat for every 2.6 residents, given the town’s official population. And yet during playoff games, like the two held against the Nipawin Hawks this past week, the arena is so full of spectators, it is standing room only, Eaton said.

But on Saturday, people came to the sports complex for a far different reason: to meet with crisis counselors, commiserate and get updates on their players.

All of the wounded were transferred from three local community hospitals to Saskatoon to be treated at larger hospitals, officials said. The driver of the tractor-trailer was not injured in the crash, the police said. Authorities released no details of the collision, but said an investigation into the cause is continuing.

“This is a time of great sorrow for our province,” Premier Scott Moe of Saskatchewan said Saturday during a news conference.

He added: “Because in this province we are really just one small town. We are neighbors, we are friends and we are family, tightly knit. The bonds are strong. And there is no place where they are stronger than in our hockey arenas. And today, our heart is broken.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the town’s mayor and team president to offer condolences. In a statement he called the accident “every parent’s worst nightmare.”
“To the entire Humboldt community: We are here for you. As neighbors, as friends, and as Canadians, we grieve alongside you,” he said.

Only four of the team’s 24 players are from Humboldt. The rest moved there from towns across Saskatchewan and neighboring provinces, and live with local families.

“They become part of the family,” said Eaton, who took many into his own home over 10 years, growing so close he has been invited to weddings.

The town and the team have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of grief and support they’ve received since the accident. Hotels offered family members of the victims free accommodation. A Go Fund Me webpage for the team, raised more than $1.5 million in 21 hours.

“It certainly affects all the Prairie Provinces,” said Kevin Garinger, the team’s president and the local director of education. “It’s unbelievable how widespread this is and it’s well beyond Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba.”

Garinger was wearing the yellow and green jersey of Conner Lukan, a team member from Slave Lake, Alberta, who billeted with his family and who died in the crash. He was barely able to retain his composure as he looked through enlarged photographs of the dead players.

As the news spread, other sports teams – professional and amateur – began sending their condolences. Sheldon Kennedy, a retired NHL player who was in a similar fatal bus crash involving a Saskatchewan hockey team in December 1986, tweeted that he was “sending all my thoughts and prayers to those impacted with the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.”

Housley on Humboldt: 'My heart goes out to those people'

“I’m sure that Humboldt is devastated, and I don’t know if it will ever come back from a situation like this,” Hall told NHL.com.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets announced their players would wear the word “Broncos” instead of their names on the back of their jerseys during Saturday night’s games.

The league wrote on Twitter: “The NHL mourns the passing of those who perished and offers strength and comfort to those injured while traveling to play and be part of a game they all love.”

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