The tragedy merely exposed a country still connected through people living in small communities doing good, making a living and playing hockey
TRAGEDY | HOCKEY
By Dr. Opiyo Oloya
To the world, Canada is mostly vast rolling prairie wheat farms, deep white snow and freezing temperatures. But if you really want to know the hearts of Canadians, then go to any small community around this time, as cold winter wanes into gentle spring and ask for direction to the local hockey ice-rink.
Inside the arena, you are guaranteed a warm reception, if you can demonstrate a passing interest in the game of hockey. There you will find wee kids teetering and tottering on skates as they chase the black flat puck across the slippery ice.
The hockey rink is where Canadians meet lifelong partners, agree to disagree, make friends and enemies. It is where they play the game they have never surrendered to anyone.
The Yankees, our neighbours south of the border, stole the other Canadian invention—basketball. But not hockey, which remains Canadian to this day. You can imagine then the deep emotions Canadians felt when they woke up on Saturday morning to the tragic news of the accident that took the lives of 10 young hockey players, the coach, the assistant coach, the play announcer, the score-keeper and bus-driver of the Saskatchewan Humboldt Bronchos. It did not matter that many had never heard the name of the small-town hockey team. There are so many such teams across Canada that it is hard to keep track of them all.
Yet, the sheer number of teams is precisely why the accident hit Canadians so hard—everyone can relate to players, their families and communities. The accident is still being actively investigated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). What is known is that the Bronchos left Hamboldt on Friday afternoon on Charlie’s Charter bus bound for Nipawin, a two-hour drive north.
They had a game that night and planned to return to Humboldt after the game. Tragedy struck around five o’clock when the Broncho’s bus collided with a semi-trailer packed with boxes. The impact was so devastatingly powerful that both vehicles were reduced to scrap metal. The players, kids age 16 to 20, their hair dyed a youthful white for solidarity soon lay grievously wounded, dying and dead. All their coaches too.
The reaction was swift and immediate throughout Canada. “This is a dark moment for our city, our community, our province," the Mayor of Humboldt Rob Muench said on Saturday afternoon at a sad news conference. "There is no playbook on what to do in cases like this." And so, as in any small village, one by one, Canadians focussed on helping families and survivors of the Humboldt Bronchos. Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, sent his condolences. US President Donald Trump also sent his prayers. A crowdfunding website was set up by a resident of Humboldt with a goal to raise $2m to help the families and the survivors of the crash. In less than 24 hours, the amount raised blew past that goal. Organisers reset a new target for $4 million. Again, Canadians raised past that goal. Little kids gave money from their piggy banks to add to the growing pile. $6m, $6.1m and so it goes, with no end in sight.
The passion to help the Bronchos is understandable. Hockey is the game every Canadian dreams of playing and on every local team is kid who dreams of one day playing the big times in the National Hockey League (NHL) with its mega-million dollar contracts. Few ever make it to that elite level, but that never dims the beauty of the game. Every year, if they are not in the local arena chasing the puck, Canadians are huddled around TV sets watching the playoff games, a ritual which begins this week. Everyone has a favourite team to cheer until death do us part.
This very Canadian ritual was immortalised in the short story book, The Hockey Sweater by Quebec writer Roch Carrier. Every Canadian child knows the legendary story. Listen to the author read the book on CBC Radio—a truly great story—and you will understand why hockey is so special to Canadians (http://www.cbc.ca). When Roch was a little boy growing up in a little village in Quebec, life was mostly attending church, going to school and playing at the hockey rink. Then every boy’s hero was Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Number 9 who played with the mighty Montreal Canadians. Roch dreamed of growing up to become a hockey player like Richard.
When his old hockey jersey was worn out, Roch’s mother ordered a new sweater from the Eaton Department Store in Toronto. But when the package finally arrived, to the horror of the young boy, it contained not the beautiful red and white jersey of the Montreal Canadians, but the hated blue and white jersey of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Not surprising, then, a very Canadian thing happened on Sunday afternoon. CBC Radio used the weekly programme, Cross-Country Checkup to hear from Canadians. It was part national therapy and part mourning. Canadians from coast to coast and from overseas called in, pouring out their hearts. Many could not even speak a sentence without breaking down. Grown men sobbed as they spoke about the tragedy, shedding tears as if the accident had taken their very own kith and kin. The Sunday evening memorial held at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Bronchos where the team practised every night and hosted visiting teams, was packed to the rafters. Grief was palpable in the huge gathering, as players and coaches from other teams mourned the loss. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there. On this day he was just another ordinary mourner. His people left him alone as he sat, sullen, listening to the memorial. Some kids were inconsolable. They wailed as they clung to their parents. Strangers hugged, holding each other tightly as if the very act might provide sense to what happened to the Bronchos. After all, every hockey team travels through backcountry, small roads and rural highways to the next game in another hockey rink in a small town.
This is what makes Canada what it is. The game of hockey defines childhood passage, launching little boys and girls into young adulthood and whatever world awaits them. The tragedy merely exposed a country still connected through people living in small communities doing good, making a living and playing hockey. For the 10 dead players of the Humboldt Bronchos and their five coaches, that road ended tragically on Friday evening.
But Canadians will never forget them. In the nation of 36 million inhabitants, living in a country so large it swallows whole Algeria, Angola, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Sudan, with plenty of room to add Uganda and Kenya for dessert, the Humboldt Bronchos have become part of the hockey lore. That is because in this beautiful country, the game of hockey defines and binds everyone to everyone else.