Death toll increases to 15 after Humboldt Broncos bus crash leaves country in grief, shock
(THE GLOBE AND MAIL, 7 April 2018)
Grief-stricken families, players and coaches shared stunned eulogies Saturday of 15 people killed when a semi-trailer crashed into the team bus of a rural Saskatchewan club on its way to a playoff game. They told stories of an impulsive decision to drop in on a brother, of gingerbread house construction and of an early, tone-setting refrigerator raid. The victims included the junior hockey captain of the Humboldt Broncos, his top-scoring linemate, the team’s seasoned coach, a radio reporter and a young hockey stats keeper. The accident, which also left a further 14 people injured, including some in critical condition, reverberated across the hockey world and devastated a province where the sport is the glue connecting far-flung Prairie towns and sparks the NHL dreams of city and rural kids alike. Kevin Garinger, president of the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, struggled to find words to describe the impact of the “incomprehensible situation.” “We are stunned and grieving,” he told a news conference. “Everything about this tragedy is unprecedented.” The worst nightmare has happened,” added Bill Chow, president of the hockey league, his eyes red as he put his hand to his mouth and worked to compose his emotions. The Broncos were travelling to Nipawin for a must-win Game 5 playoff match when the accident happened late Friday afternoon, about 300 kilometres north of Regina. Aerial photos from the crash site on Saturday showed catastrophic damage to the charter bus, which was lying on its side on a patch of snow just off the highway. Much of the front half of the bus was missing and its roof had been ripped off. Hockey bags, sleeping bags and other belongings were scattered on the ground nearby. The tractor-trailer was sitting on its side parallel to the bus a short distance away, with its cargo, which appeared to be dozens of packages of an agricultural product such as peat moss, strewn about the scene. Investigators could be seen surveying the wreckage with police vehicles not far away. Neither the RCMP nor the team would name any of the victims, but social media lit up with fans, friends and family members. The team’s playoff roster includes players aged mostly between 17 and 21; the younger player would have turned 17 next week.The death of the popular coach, Darcy Haugan, was confirmed by his wife and his sister. He had been coaching the Humboldt Broncos for about four years, according to his sister Deborah Carpenter. He was 41, married, and the father of two boys.
“He was my little brother,” Ms. Carpenter said in an interview Saturday. “He just turned over my world. He was just this great playmate and someone I could torment, someone I could play ball with. We were a sports family — he and I played a lot of sports in our backyard.”
Mr. Haugan played on a string of teams in Canada, the United States, and Europe, as he tried to make it to the National Hockey League. One of Ms. Carpenter’s favourite memories of her brother came when he played with the Fort Saskatchewan Traders, a Junior A team in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. She was about to become a single mom and Mr. Haugan’s teammates asked him how he felt about becoming a father. That’s when he figured it out: The siblings were so close everyone thought they were dating, Ms. Carpenter said. Mr. Haugan was born in Peace River, Alta. He went to Michigan on a hockey scholarship, although did not finish there. Later, he played hockey in Sweden. The coach played right wing and was a right-handed shooter, his sister said. When he was a kid, he wore the number their dad wore.
“I’ll always remember him as No. 5,” Ms. Carpenter said. Team captain Logan Schatz was also among the dead, his father, Kelly Schatz, confirmed. Mr. Schatz said his 20-year-old son played for the Broncos for just over four years and had served as team captain for the past two-and-a-half years. He said his family is seeking solace in one another. “It’s hard,” Mr. Schatz said. “I’ve got four other kids and they’re here, which is nice.”
Colin and Amanda Brochu billeted Logan Schatz starting last summer and were struck at the easy way he fit into their family, immediately becoming a big-brother figure to their 13-year-old son. “The first night he was here, he walked in and he was checking the fridge to see what we had for leftovers,” Mr. Brochu said in the family kitchen in Humboldt. “It made it really easy not to have the awkward moments. He was comfortable here, which made us comfortable with him here.” Logan’s teammate, Jaxon Joseph, the son of a former Edmonton Oiler, was among the leading scorers in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. His former team, The Surrey Eagles, confirmed in a statement that Joseph was killed. Blaine Neufeld, general manager of the Surrey Eagles, told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Joseph joined his squad during the 2015/2016 season during a prolonged team slump. “No matter the circumstances, he always had a positive look on it, he had a genuine smile that lit up the room and he was always a part of the solution and never part of the problem,” Mr. Neufeld said Saturday.
Alicia Wack posted on Facebook, and confirmed to The Globe and Mail, that her cousin Stephen Wack, a 21-year-old defenceman, was among the dead. Her post is an emotional eulogy to a much-loved family member who “made the best gingerbread houses, enjoyed walking anywhere and everywhere and absolutely lived and breathed hockey.” “The little things he did to show his love meant more to me than he could ever know. My heart is destroyed.”
Brothers Xavier and Isaac Labelle grew up side by side, whether playing intricate duets together at the piano or on the ice, where Xavier played a rigorous defence while his older brother tended goal. They started the hockey season playing on the Broncos together, but Isaac was traded to Manitoba early in the season. Xavier remained on the team, and was one of those killed in Friday’s crash. Last Sunday, Isaac Labelle stopped in Humboldt to visit his brother and another close friend on the team, Logan Hunter, on his way back to Saskatoon. The three men went to Boston Pizza and ate wings and cactus cut fries for Easter Dinner. Mr. Hunter perished in the crash.
“I was driving in from Manitoba and I thought I’d pop in and see them,” Isaac Labelle said. “And that was the best choice I made in my life. I’ll always hold that close to my heart.” Tyler Bieber, a play-by-play announcer and a reporter with Humboldt’s CHBO radio, died in the crash. He was on assignment with Brody Hinz, a young stats keeper for the league. In a Facebook post, station manager Brian Kusch described Mr. Bieber and Mr. Hinz as “two amazing people,” writing: “Tyler was the heartbeat of the station and Brody was only getting started in his career. Thoughts go out to all the family and friends of everyone who lost a loved one from this.”
Mr. Kusch declined to comment further Saturday afternoon. According to a profile on the station website, Mr. Bieber was born and raised in Humboldt and joined Bolt FM after moving back to the community from Regina in 2014. Mr. Bieber was a sports fan who had a particular love for football and ran the @CFLDaily Twitter account. He became “the voice of the Broncos” calling play-by-play at games. Friends and colleagues remembered him on social media as a dedicated journalist, and an active member of both the sports world and his home community.
Mr. Hinz had worked at the station as a student, and described himself in his Twitter bio as “Stats guy For The @HumboldtBroncos of the SJHL at just 18 years old!” Golden West Radio said in a statement that he was being mentored by Mr. Bieber. “Brody had recently joined our Golden West family, mentored by Tyler and the Bolt FM team,” Lydon Frieson, president of Golden West Radio, said in a statement posted on the station’s website. “Tragedy has hit our community and it reaches into every corner of life in Humboldt.” The Canadian Press reported Sunday that defenceman Adam Herold and bus driver Glen Doerksen were also among the people who were killed. Mr. Doerksen’s employer, Charlie’s Charters, posted about the driver’s death on Facebook. Another team he drove for, the Kinistino Tigers, also issued a statement.
“In talking to him, he spoke at length of his time in rinks with his own family and now how much he enjoyed being able to take and watch other teams from minor, to senior to SJHL to their hockey games,” a spokesperson for the Tigers wrote on Facebook. “We will never forget the smile on your face as we left Allan after winning the Championship and got you to give ‘two honks for the Cup,“’ they wrote. The manager of Mr. Herold’s previous team, the Regina Pat Canadians, confirmed his death to The Canadian Press. The defenceman would have turned 17 on Thursday. John Smith noted that Mr. Herold played for the Regina team until just weeks ago, but was sent to join the Broncos for their playoff round when the Pat Canadians’ season wrapped up.
Mr. Smith described Mr. Herold as a hard worker and a good leader, noting that Mr. Herold was team captain for the 2017-2018 season. The Kelowna Rockets said in a news release that former Tacoma Rockets captain Scott Thomas lost his son Evan Thomas, a forward who was 18 and in his rookie season with the Broncos. Assistant coach Mark Cross was also reported among the dead by Graeme Cross, who said in an online tribute that his cousin was a caring and generous young man with an amazing smile. Most of the players are from Saskatchewan and Alberta. In a province as spread out as Saskatchewan, teams often travel three or more hours in brutal winter conditions to get to the rink, where 5,000 fervid fans can show up in towns with populations just over double that.
STARS, which operates air ambulances throughout the prairies, dispatched three helicopters, which together airlifted four patients to Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon. Hassan Masri, an intensive care unit doctor at the Royal University Hospital, said the facility went into Code Orange, alerting staff to expect mass casualties. As one patient after another arrived, the emergency department was both chaotic and organized. He said he felt few emotions amid the madness.
“Most of us have never really witnessed anything like that in our careers,” he said. Dr. Masri, whose parents are Syrian and who had volunteered with Doctors Without Borders in Syria in 2012, said the scene in Saskatoon on Friday night was similar to a war zone.
He recalled delivering news of horrific injuries to distraught parents, only to see them smile with relief to learn their children were alive. By 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, when patients had been stabilized, he stopped to look around. Parents, siblings and medical personnel were in tears. Mothers tried to cuddle sons lying on stretchers. Police say the bus was travelling northbound along Hwy. 35 and the tractor trailer was travelling westbound on Hwy 335. Google Maps images from the intersection show the bus’s route northbound on Highway 35 has the right of way through the intersection. East-west traffic crossing that route along Highway 335 has a stop sign in both directions. The driver and lone occupant of the tractor-trailer was not injured. Ian Boxall is a councillor in the rural municipality where the accident occurred and lives about eight kilometres from the scene. He said Saturday that there has been a fatal crash at that intersection before, and that he will be lobbying for safety improvements. “There are stop signs and I’m certain that they’re lit, flashing red. Even in the dark there’s a street light there, but it wasn’t dark at the time so that doesn’t play into it,” Mr. Boxall said. “I don’t know if it’s going to require lighting and signs further back or what, but obviously it needs something.” At the community rink where the team has its home ice, and at the local curling rink, chairs were being set out to accommodate more than 3,000 people who are expected to attend a vigil and service for the team.
Many people wandered in and out of the arena during the morning. Multiple crisis workers were assisting in a separate area. Flowers were placed on the stairs in the rink stands. The railing were wrapped in yellow and green ribbon to honour the team. A memorial on the steps inside the arena continued to grow, with cars, flowers, balloons and Teddy bears. There was even a box of Kraft dinner.
Logan Knutson, 15, fought back tears as he laid a bouquet on the stairs. “I lost a couple of buddies,” he said.
The last time the arena was full was last Wednesday night when the Broncos won a playoff game in triple overtime. The team hoped to be playing back home again on Sunday at the same time the vigil will be held.
The SJHL is a mid-tier junior league where amateur teens and 20-year-olds strive to either get college scholarships or move up to semi-professional contracts in bigger leagues. The Broncos have won the most titles in the 50-year history of the league, but finished fifth out of 12 teams this regular season. Condolences from across Canada and around the world began flooding in by Saturday morning, with Saskatchewan’s premier and Canada’s prime minister expressing sadness and NHL names from local heroes to hall-of-famers struggled to explain the magnitude of the tragedy. Bryan Trottier, inducted into the Hall of Fame for his play with the New York Islanders and the Pittsburgh Penguins between 1975 and 1994, is a native of Val Marie, Sask., south of Swift Current.
“Oh God, it’s horrible,” Mr. Trottier, 61, said in an interview. “I just know the hockey guys, it doesn’t matter what league you’re in, when something like this happens in the game of hockey it hits you, not even a punch to the gut, it’s a punch to the heart.”
Mr. Trottier got his start with the Swift Current Broncos in the Western Hockey League and also played for the Moose Jaw Canucks in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League in 1971-1972.
“You know, I have no words to express the right way I feel right now other than shock. All of the communities in Saskatchewan will feel the effect.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman released a statement noting, “Our thoughts are with the players, families, coaches, team management and all those throughout the community.”
“The NHL mourns the passing of those who perished and offers strength and comfort to those injured while travelling to play and be part of a game they all love.”
Michelle Straschnitzki, who lives in Airdrie, Alta., said her 18-year old son Ryan had been taken to hospital in Saskatoon.
”We talked to him, but he said he couldn’t feel his lower extremities so I don’t know what’s going on,” she said, noting she will go to Saskatchewan on Saturday.
”I am freaking out. I am so sad for all of the teammates and I am losing my mind.”
The team includes Parker Tobin, an 18-year-old goalie whose hometown is listed at Stony Plain, Alta.
A Twitter user named Rhonda Clarke Tobin posted on Friday night: “This is one of the hardest posts I have ever had to make. Parker is stable at the moment and being airlifted to Saskatoon hospital. Thank you all for your kind words and messages. Please continue to pray for his Humboldt family.”
A GoFundMe page created by a Humboldt resident quickly became the most successful Canadian campaign ever on the online fundraising site and among the Top 10 globally. By Saturday afternoon, tens of thousands of people had donated more than $2.5-million. That included a number of large donations, such as $10,000 each from the Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs.
GoFundMe confirmed the company is working with the organizer of the campaign to determine the best way to distribute the money.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement on Saturday that said the entire country was in shock and mourning.
“This is every parent’s worst nightmare. No one should ever have to see their child leave to play the sport they love and never come back,” the statement said.
“Our national hockey family is a close one, with roots in almost every town – small and big – across Canada. Humboldt is no exception, and today the country and the entire hockey community stands with you.”
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said his province was reeling from the tragedy, which has cast a wide net that stretches across Canada. Mr. Moe said the province often feels like a tightly knit small town.
“The bonds are strong, and there is no place where they are stronger than in our hockey arenas — the heart of so many communities in this province,” he told a news conference Saturday afternoon
“And today, our heart is broken.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who represents a rural Saskatchewan riding, also issued a statement of condolence.
“It the worst kind of tragedy any parent or friend can imagine, and the strength of the Humboldt community, and communities across the region that have been touched by this loss, will be so important now. I have no doubt that the people of Saskatchewan will come together to support each other during this extremely difficult time,” the statement read.
Later on Saturday, U.S. President Donald Trump added his condolences. Isaac Labelle said and his family went to two games in Humboldt last week to cheer the Broncos on during their playoff run.
A day later, Isaac Labelle – like so many others in the community and around the entire country – was still trying to process what happened, to make sense of the magnitude and senselessness of the loss.
“There are no real words that I can say that describe what I’m feeling. It’s – ,” his voice trailed off for a moment.
“It’s awful what happened. I feel so bad for everybody. I know I’m not the only one suffering, and there’s other people out there. Everyone is coming together, and we’re going to get through this. All of us.”
Editor’s Note: Due to an incorrect news release issued by the Saskatchewan coroner’s office, a news story yesterday incorrectly identified Xavier Labelle as one of the Humboldt Broncos who died in Friday’s bus and truck crash.
With reports from David Shoalts, James Keller, Allan Maki and The Canadian Press.