HUMBOLDT, Saskatchewan (AP) – A hockey arena became the epicenter of grief for a small Canadian town on Sunday, as friends, relatives and those that housed the young hockey players gathered to mourn 15 people killed after a semi-trailer slammed into a bus carrying a youth hockey team in western Canada.
Fourteen were also injured, some critically, in a collision that left a country, its national sport and the hockey-obsessed town of Humboldt, Saskatchewan reeling.
The bus had 29 passengers, including the driver, when it crashed at about 5 p.m. Friday on Highway 35, police said. Among the dead are Broncos head coach Darcy Haugan, team captain Logan Schatz and radio announcer Tyler Bieber.
Residents of this town of less than 6,000 have been leaving flowers, team jerseys and personal tributes on the steps of the arena’s entrance, forming a makeshift memorial. One tribute included a Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner box, which was a favorite meal of deceased forward Evan Thomas. A bouquet of pink roses adorned the box, which read “to Evan, game day special, love your billet brother and sister Colten and Shelby.”
While most of the players were from elsewhere in western Canada, they were put up by families in the small town of Humboldt. Billeting families are a large part of junior hockey, with players spending years with host families.
Dennis Locke, his wife and three young children came to the arena to hang posters of forward Jaxon Joseph, who is the son of former NHL player Chris Joseph. The Locke family housed Joseph and treated him like a son.
“Best person ever,” Locke said. “Down to earth, loved playing with the kids.”
His wife wiped away tears from swollen eyes.
Forward Logan Hunter and defensemen Stephen Wack, Adam Herold and Xavier Labelle were also among the dead, according to family members and others. Assistant coach Mark Cross, bus driver Glen Doerksen and stats keeper Brody Hinz, who was 18, were also killed.
Herold, who would have turned 17 on Thursday, played for the Regina Pat Canadians hockey team until just weeks ago, but was sent to join the Broncos for their playoff round when the Pat Canadians’ season wrapped up, said John Smith, the Pat Canadians’ manager.
The names of all the dead and injured have not been released by police.
Norman Mattock, a longtime season ticket holder, said his neighbor housed player Morgan Gobeil. The defenseman was severely injured and remains in serious but stable condition, Mattock said.
He said players become part of the community fabric, doing volunteer work or serving in restaurants. Three players who billeted by the same family all died in the crash, he added.
“They lost them all,” Mattock said.
The Broncos are a close-knit team who dyed their hair blond for the playoffs. The bus was driving the team to a crucial playoff game Friday against the Nipawin Hawks.
A vigil will be held on the hockey team’s home ice on Sunday night, and a makeshift stage and hundreds of chairs sit ready for the memorial.
“We’re devastated,” said hockey club Vice President Randolph MacLEAN. “At the center of this, we have 15 souls who’ll never go home again. We have 29 lives that will never be the same.”
MacLEAN said the community comes together at the arena on game nights that draw 800 to 1,000 people to the stands.
“It’s an energy that spreads through the town with road signs saying ‘game tonight,’ tickets for sale everywhere,” he said.
As is the case with small town hockey across Canada, he said, the arena is not just a recreation facility, but a focus of community life with the hockey team at its center.
With players who billet by local families, work in city businesses and attend local schools, MacLEAN said the tragedy touches every corner of Humboldt.
Canadian police said the truck driver, who was not hurt, was initially detained but has since been released and provided with mental health assistance. Royal Canadian Mounted Police Assistant Commissioner Curtis Zablocki said it’s too early to state a cause for the crash.
Photographs of the wreckage showed the twisted trailer with most of its wheels in the air and the bus on its side with its back portion destroyed. The force of the crash sent both vehicles into the ditch at the northwest corner of the intersection.
The tractor-trailer would have had to yield to a stop sign before crossing over the highway that the hockey bus was travelling on. There is a stand of trees on the southeast corner of the intersection, limiting visibility of the approach on both roads.
Police said a lot of issues have to be investigated, including weather conditions at the time and any mechanical issues with the vehicles.
The tragedy brought to mind an accident in 1986, when the Swift Current Broncos team bus slid off an icy highway and crashed in late December, killing four players.
Gillies reported from Toronto.