Up until 5 p.m. last Friday, when a friend phoned to tell him the busload of opposing players and coaches he was waiting for would never arrive, the greatest concern on Doug Johnson’s mind was that his team’s penalty kill would falter on the biggest night to date of the Junior A hockey season.
The Nipawin Hawks had allowed three goals while shorthanded in their last playoff game, a triple-overtime thriller they were fortunate to win. With a three games to one lead in a best-of-seven conference final, one more victory was all it would take to eliminate the Humboldt Broncos and advance to the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s championship series. Ideally it would come that night, in a disciplined performance at Nipawin’s home rink, Centennial Arena.
Instead, Johnson found himself delivering a speech to his young players that he could barely remember three days later. He confirmed the news some of them had already received in frantic texts: the Broncos’ bus had collided with a semi at an intersection 30 kilometres south of town. All he knew at the time was that the game was off, and all they could do was take care of each other.
“Nobody is OK,” said Johnson, the Hawks’ head coach and general manager. “Everybody who has played hockey, this hits, because the bus is your sanctuary, the game is your sanctuary. To have this happen, it’s beyond what anybody could ever think of or comprehend.”
Shock and sorrow have wracked the town of Humboldt, Sask., in the days since the crash, which killed 10 of the Broncos’ junior-aged players, two of the team’s coaches, their play-by-play announcer, their volunteer statistician and the bus driver. Fourteen other passengers were injured. Thousands of mourners gathered at a vigil at the team’s arena on Sunday evening to pray, lay flowers for the deceased and begin to reckon with what the future holds.
Two hours to the northeast, down the highways the Broncos’ bus travelled until the moment of impact Friday, Johnson joined three of his players at the Apostolic Church in Nipawin on Sunday for a vigil of their own. Alongside some of the emergency personnel who were first on the scene, they lit 15 candles and tried to set in motion the long process of understanding their grief.
“There’s people hurting here, too. The first responders, people you don’t think of that were on the scene — they can’t ever get the image out of their mind,” Johnson said Monday.
“We’re just trying to make sense of all this,” he said. “I can’t imagine what Humboldt’s going through, because I know what it’s like here.”
Aside from the players who attended the vigil in Nipawin — those whom logistics prevented from heading home to their families over the weekend — every member of Johnson’s team has temporarily left town, waiting for word on when the SJHL playoffs will resume. Some of them lost good friends or past teammates in the crash. All of them have immense respect for the Broncos, Johnson said, a relationship shaped by nightly battles for provincial hockey supremacy.
The SJHL hasn’t made any plans to return to the ice yet, league president Bill Chow said Monday. Representatives of all 12 SJHL teams, including Humboldt, Nipawin and the Estevan Bruins, who are awaiting an opponent for the league final, will meet in the next couple days to discuss the situation, and Chow is hopeful of reaching a decision by Wednesday.
If it were up to Johnson, play would already have restarted. Reached by phone in his office Monday, the coach said one of the players who stayed in Nipawin had come to see him at the rink that morning, hockey gear in tow. He needed to skate.
“The people that are no longer with us were on that bus to play. They were on that bus to chase a dream and make it to the Canalta Cup finals. If we don’t play, in my mind, we do them a huge disservice,” Johnson said.
“To me, the only way to truly honour Humboldt is to play. I think it’ll help our players with the grieving process. Will it be tough? Absolutely. Will sometimes it not make sense? Absolutely. But talking with people that have been through tragedies, to a person, they just say, ‘Get back and honour them through play. That’s what they would want.’”
For now, the priority in Nipawin is to make sure each player feels supported, that their billet parents and the team’s psychologist and chaplain are in place to help them sort through the emotions they’ll experience in the weeks and months to come. Johnson said he has no clue how the rest of this week will go, but he and his staff have one idea to ease the team back into a trusted routine. Every year in the playoffs, they take their players on a 25-kilometre drive out of town to Tobin Lake, where they share a steak dinner.
This year, they plan to take a bus. Johnson thinks some players will be afraid to do so, which underscores that it has to be done. Without a bus on hand, the Hawks are borrowing one free of charge from a nearby Junior B team: the Carrot River Outback Thunder, whose former board member Glen Doerksen was the driver who died in the Humboldt crash.
“Everybody feels very hopeless right now,” Johnson said. “People are just so gracious right now, and anything anybody can do, it seems like they’re willing to do.”
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