by Rosie DiManno
There’s no solace in the randomness of fate, but there is community, small and large, that gathers in tragedy.
It’s hardly spoken of anymore, but in 1961 the entire U.S. figure skating team was killed when the plane taking them to the world championships in Prague crashed in Belgium.
In 1970, 37 players and five coaching staff from Marshall University’s football team died when their plane slammed into a hill just short of the West Virginia airport and exploded.
The beloved Turin FC soccer squad, regarded as the best in the world at the time, was wiped out in 1949 when its plane flew into a hill on approach, minutes from the airfield.
In 2016, most members of Brazil’s Chapecoense soccer team were killed when their flight crashed in Colombia.
Most famously perhaps – because of the cannibalism forced upon survivors – was Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, carrying the country’s rugby union team and their families, which crashed in the remote Andes on Oct. 13, 1972. While 27 survived the accident, eight were killed in a subsequent avalanche that swept over the wreckage. Sixteen were eventually rescued – 72 days after the catastrophe.
It’s a grim roll call of the dead, from the sports world, where extensive travel is an everyday necessity. The saving grace is that while the casualty list is long, dozens of such tragedies, it isn’t longer still, given all the miles traversed over the years, all the teams on the move, all the games in all the places.
In the modern era, calamities are mostly attributable to doomed flights. In earlier times, though, there were multiple fatal misfortunes involving trains and buses. Over a century ago, 14 members of Purdue University’s football team were killed in a train collision.
And now, 15 boys and men from the Humboldt Broncos whose lives were suddenly extinguished in
Friday nightís tragedy on Hwy. 35 in Saskatchewan. Fourteen injured.
Thus far, there has been little information on what caused the collision between the hockey team’s bus and a transport truck, although the truck’s driver suffered no injury and was released after briefly being held in custody, according to the RCMP. Police say it’s too early to know if any charges will be laid.
As Maple Leaf coach Mike Babcock, who was raised in Saskatoon, noted on the weekend: “I know that road pretty good. It doesn’t seem like a big (perilous) spot. It’s not in the mountains or anything like that. But accidents do happen.”
There’s no solace in the randomness of fate – that it could have happened anywhere on the more than one million kilometres of road that stitch Canada together, that it could have been a church group bus or a Greyhound or a rock band on tour. But that it was young hockey players touched the country deeply, triggered an outpouring of sympathy and GoFundMe contributions that had surpassed $4 million by Sunday night.
Funerals to pay for. Assistance for families with steep rehabilitation expenses ahead, counselling for those who miraculously survived and the first responders who frantically triaged the scene. In a community as small as Humboldt – population less than 6,000 – where many players from away were billeted with local families, thereís hardly anybody who didnít have some kind of connection with the team, from students who attended school with the victims to fans who simply were devoted to their local club. The devastating impact is immeasurable.
The Broncos organization has been overwhelmed with pleas to help, somehow.
“We’ve been contacted by organizations across our country, across North America and globally, for that matter,” club president Kevin Garinger told a press conference on Sunday, revealing as well that one of the injured players has been released from hospital. “We’re very grateful for that. But – I think that right now one of the biggest things we can ask for is support through the thoughts and prayers that would be extended to our families, our billet families, and our organization.”
For some, strength will be found in their faith, and I envy anybody who takes courage to endure in religious belief. A public vigil, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attending, was held at the Humboldt arena on Sunday night, organized by local churches. The rink where the Broncos had been scheduled to play a Game 6 playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks. The Broncos had been on their way to Game 5 when the accident occurred.
I expect some will strafe themselves with if-only scenarios. If only they hadn’t allowed their sons to leave home, chasing their hockey dreams. If only that bus had left Humboldt 10 minutes earlier or later.
It will make you crazy, trying to rewrite history so that what happened didn’t happen.
Bus travel, intrinsic to minor league hockey, is both tiresome and bonding-enjoyable. It is a fact of life.
“There are things to be feared in all types of travel,” said Leaf defenceman Morgan Rielly, who played his junior hockey with the Moose Jaw Warriors. “You try not to think about it.”
And for the most part we donít gnaw on it, those worst-case scenarios.
Just last month, after an away spring training game, a bus carrying the Blue Jays back to Dunedin, Fla., pulled over to the side of the highway because the driver was feeling ill. That man suffered a heart attack and died in the ambulance rushing him to hospital. Had he not prudently halted, had he been seized by a coronary behind the wheel on that heavy-traffic road, the outcome could have been incalculably worse.
The future is always an unknown country. We canít live our lives – or hover over the lives of our children – by pre-emptively trying to protect them from harm. From the moment they take their first steps, let go of your hand, theyíre moving away from you and the heart seizes a little bit.
There’s nothing for the Humboldt team families to remonstrate themselves about.
Before the funerals begin, we’re learning more about the victims, each one leaving a gaping hole behind. There was so much more to them than the hockey they loved, just as there was more to the Broncos, as Garinger emphasized Sunday, than a hockey culture. They were, are, about developing “amazing young men.”
I was especially moved by a tweet sent out on Saturday by Justin Wack, sibling to Stephen Wack, a 21-year-old defenceman killed in the crash. Justin had reached out to sports networks and Hockey Night in Canada.
“I am the little brother of Stephen Wack, who didnít make it last night in the accident. He was really talented at making videos. I was wondering if you could play this one on HNIC for him tonight? I know he’d really appreciate it.”
If you havenít seen it yet, do watch https://youtu.be/A5wAWAFmZRY. Stephen Wack was clearly a
young man of many dimensions, hockey player and talented videographer.
Also from Justin Wack, in the sweetest of simple epitaphs: “Stephen I love you.”
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs.
Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services