Maple Leafs, Babcock have heavy hearts after Humboldt Broncos tragedy

RCMP say 15 people are dead and 14 people were injured Friday after a truck collided with a bus carrying a junior hockey team to a playoff game in northeastern Saskatchewan.

TORONTO – Sitting here at Air Canada Centre we are a long way away from Humboldt, Sask. We are a long way away and yet we are not.

At first blush you might think there’s very little in common between the bright lights of Hockey Night in Canada and Game 5 of a third-round playoff series in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. A game scheduled for Friday night that will never be played.

“Yeah, I know that road pretty good,” said Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, misty-eyed and unusually short on words before his team faced the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday. “It didn’t seem like a big spot, it’s not mountains or anything like that, but accidents do happen.”

Riding the bus is a rite of passage in our sport. It’s part of the routine even in the first-class lifestyle of the NHL. Most of the Maple Leafs have taken four or five bus trips this week.

So as much as accidents do happen, there’s no making sense of what happened to the Humboldt Broncos while making the two-hour drive to Nipawin on Friday night. Fifteen people on the team’s bus were killed on a flat, straight section of Highway 35 north of Tisdale when their bus collided with a truck.

Fifteen people, some of them teenagers, gone in an instant. Gone far, far too soon.

“You send your kid away in my case to junior hockey, or college hockey, or college soccer, and I always used to think about those vans that the coaches were driving in college soccer: I always thought those were a nightmare,” Babcock said. “This was supposed to be as safe as it gets, and it just goes to show you you’ve got to embrace each and every day, and every day that you’re with your…your family, so you better enjoy it.”

Babcock grew up skating on the rink at St. James School in Saskatoon. He was born the son of a mining engineer in northern Ontario and moved around a fair bit as a kid, but he always identified most with Saskatchewan. “It’s a down-to-earth place, it’s a hard-working people, it’s a great spot to be from,” he said earlier this season.

There’s plenty of Sasky Pride coursing through the Leafs dressing room.

Patrick Marleau was raised in the tiny farming community of Aneroid and had to drive an hour to Swift Current to chase his hockey dreams. Tyler Bozak skated on outdoor ponds while growing up in Regina. Morgan Rielly spent his childhood in Vancouver before moving to Wilcox to attend the Notre Dame prep school as a 14-year-old and wound up playing for the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors.

Marleau remembers the excitement when his youth hockey team started making the longer bus trips between Swift Current and Yorkton. “Esterhazy, Estevan, all over the province,” he said.

“Even for me, my best memories are riding the bus, and doing what junior hockey players do: Talking, playing cards, watching movies,” Rielly said. “I was just saying that even when you talk to guys in this room, or on different teams that you might meet along the way, you know, that’s the first thing you talk about: ‘Oh, what was your longest bus ride?’

“[You] compare and talk about that kind of stuff over the course of your career when you meet new guys.”

The Leafs displayed a Humboldt Broncos logo in their dressing room while speaking with reporters on Saturday morning, and the mood was heavy before the final game of their regular season.

Only those directly affected by the tragedy know the true depths of the pain in Humboldt. But the players could identify with the energy the Broncos must have felt as they made their way towards Centennial Arena in Nipawin – a 1,200-seat barn constructed in 1967, Canada’s centennial year, that is described on the town’s website as “a hub of the community.”

They felt the tidal wave of grief the spread across the province and country after the bus didn’t get there.

“I know hockey’s everything in Canada, but in Saskatchewan every community is really small so everybody knows everybody,” Marleau said. “You try to help each other and take care of each other. It’s very tight-knit.”

That’s why Babcock ended up in tears. He’d spent part of his morning trying to figure out how he could speak about the accident without getting choked up.

“I grew up right there in Saskatoon, it’s just down the road,” Babcock said. “My buddy’s kid played there. I talked to him. He was farming in Saskatoon last night. As the calls were coming in and they were talking about all the kids they’ve coach over the years that are playing on that team, I can’t even imagine being a parent or the wife or the kids at home and going through something like this.

“The hockey world’s an unbelievable world, [but] you can’t make up for loss. You just can’t. It’s got to rip the heart out of your chest. We pray for those families and think about them and I don’t know what else you say. Horrific, horrific accident. Tough day.”

Rielly was asked what the SJHL teams mean to the proud communities where they play. Humboldt is a town of less than 6,000 people. The Broncos have won a league-best 10 championships since they were founded in 1970.

“You can’t even – you can’t even understand. I mean going around and playing in small, small towns and being able to be a part of one of those teams is extremely special,” Rielly said. “I mean that community and the other small communities around Saskatchewan live for hockey and they drive that team and players love living there. I speak from experience: The values that you learn playing in those communities stick with you for a long time.”

Unfortunately, the horror of Friday night will stick with us, too.

Even here, a long way away, we feel the pain.

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