For many of the young hockey players involved in a crash with the Humboldt Broncos’ team bus, the small Saskatchewan town was a home very far away from home.
That’s because many junior hockey teams in the country rely on a process called billeting — where local families take in determined young hockey players from across Canada and the United States.
"In most cases they become like one of your children or grandchildren," said Gail Chilman, a billeting co-ordinator with the Estevan Bruins, a team in the same league as the Broncos. "They just become part of your family."
Families in local towns volunteer to house young players who have been drafted into the league. In the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s case, many of those players came from across Western Canada.
Chilman currently hosts three players in her home right now, and has been taking in young hockey players from as far as the United States and Slovakia since 1995.
As a host parent, she said it was still hard to fathom that 15 people on the Broncos bus were killed Friday night — including the team captain and head coach — and another 15 were injured during the crash with a truck.
She described the experience of moving far away from home as a defining and sometimes difficult one for both the players involved and the families who host them.
"Some of them come in and fit in really quickly," said Chilman. "Some of them get homesick for a while, especially if they’re young at 17 or 18 years of age, but most of the time they fit in to your families and just become part of you."
She said most of the players call it a home away from home, and the host families consider themselves extra parents with an added son.
"They’re just young gentlemen and you’re still trying to push them in the right direction in their lives and try and influence some of their habits and what happens later on in their lives," said Chilman. "If you can give them any lifetime experiences and information, that’s what we try to do."
They also become a part of the community, and many of them keep coming back season after season. One of Chilman’s first billets in 1995, Darcy Haugan, remained a part of the community for years and eventually became the head coach of the Humboldt Broncos.
He was confirmed as one of the 15 people who died in Friday’s crash.
"There’s connections everywhere it seems, it’s a tight-knit family in hockey," said Chilman, who said she also knew the assistant coach of the team who was involved in the crash. "I just can’t wrap my head around it."
Haugan was one of many former hockey players that Chilman kept in touch with after hosting.
"We’ve had a lot of young men go through the house. You keep track of them from the time they leave through their marriages, through their families and babies being born, through their careers," said Chilman. "You become attached."
Even NHL players like the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly, who spent multiple years in Moose Jaw, Sask., have fond memories of the billeting system as well.
"I loved every minute of it," said Rielly, who lived in the town while playing for the WHL. "I spent a lot of time in Saskatchewan and you gain an understanding of what it means to move into a home and live with a billet, and you become part of a family."
"Your heart breaks for the families, the billets, the people involved."