“It was haven. A safe space.” — Connor McDavid, on the team bus.
EDMONTON — In a hockey world that overworks the “us against the world” cliché, the bus is that place where it is only “us.”
No “world” ever climbs up those three steps and makes the left turn down the aisle.
It is the safest place in our sport, the place where hockey people get to know each other more deeply even than in the dressing room, because there is so much more time. There is no need to make a long story short on the bus, especially in Saskatchewan where the destination might be five, six, or seven hours away.
“The locker room and the bus trips,” said Saskatchewan native Derek Dorsett. “That’s where you create bonds with your best friends. The guys you play to win for.”
“Everyone in hockey,” added McDavid. “Everyone has been on that bus before.”
That bus is, of course the one that lay on its side next to a Saskatchewan highway Friday evening, a twisted, smouldering example of what hockey people today are calling “unthinkable.”
These are the Prairies, where the Humboldt Broncos have criss-crossed the snow-covered wheat fields of Saskatchewan since 1970, and years before that under different names in different junior circuits. The trips are longer out West, and the weather conditions on many nights poorer.
From player, to coach, to radio man to scribe, a year or two spent on a junior hockey bus are years that leave an indelible mark. It’s where you learned how to play cards, memorized every line from Slap Shot and mastered the art of napping upright.
Nothing like this is supposed to happen. Not on The Bus.
“It’s as important as the ice,” said Todd McLellan, the Oilers coach whose first coaching job came in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League at North Battleford, Sask. a quarter century ago. “You need (four) things to play the game: players, ice, officials and the puck. But for all that to happen you have to get all those people to the facilities.
“The amount of hours that teams — and it’s not just hockey; it’s baseball, basketball — spend on buses, the record is quite safe when you think about it. There are many nights, two, three o’clock in the morning where conditions aren’t that great, but they’re pushing through it.”
Ever see a hockey man cry?
Ask McLellan, who coached the Swift Current Broncos eight years after that bus crash killed two of his childhood friends, to reflect on what happened on that highway north of Tisdale on Friday. It all comes flowing back to a Prairie boy, a hockey man, and the parent of two sons.
“Some really good people take care of those teams when they operate those vehicles. Part of the fabric of our game is the bus,” McLellan said. “I was lucky enough to be part of a community that went through that in Swift Current. Lived and felt that. It goes on forever.
“I’m from Saskatoon. I know Saskatchewan people well and I know that Humboldt area really well. They’re as strong as they come, but they’ll need our help. “I know Swift Current. That was tough…”
We tend to over bake the hockey-is-everything analogies here in Canada, as if the game is ours and everyone else just borrows it from time-to-time. But until you’ve been to those rinks in places like Nipawin, or Kindersley or the Colosseum in Weyburn, it’s hard to completely digest what a junior hockey team like the Broncos means to a community like Humboldt.
A media friend, Kevin Karius, grew up in tiny Melville, Sask. and had the honour of playing for the local SJHL squad, the Millionaires.
“It’s a small place like Melville,” he said of Humboldt. “When you’re a small kid growing up, if you made the Broncos it was like making the NHL. Because that’s all there is there.”
The picture of those young men, their hair bleached blonde, packed into a dressing room so small you become a closer team just by gearing up in it. Gathered behind a trophy that looks pretty forgettable, but represents a game they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.
It’s worth far, far more than 1,000 words.
“Seeing that team picture, with all the players and coaches. A lot of them are gone,” said Vancouver Canuck Daniel Sedin. “That’s really tough. You see the faces.”
This day was supposed to be the day we bid farewell to Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who will retire after playing in Edmonton on Saturday evening.
“There are more important things in life than (our) final game,” said Henrik.
Amen to that, Henrik.
Amen to that.