Early Sunday morning they started a Western Canadian journey not unlike the one they’d shared so many times as junior teammates in Swift Current.
Sheldon Kennedy, Bob Wilkie and Peter Soberlak boarded a Saskatoon-bound flight from Calgary, dropped into a local hospital and then made a 100-kilometre drive to Humboldt, Sask.
Their mission is to help, something Graham James wouldn’t let people do following their team’s tragic bus crash.
That’s not to suggest the people of Swift Current and throughout Western Canada didn’t do everything humanly possible to wrap their arms around the survivors of the 1986 crash that killed four teammates.
However, what came to light many years later was why their coach – James – steadfastly refused to allow players professional counsellors. He feared such introspection would unearth his history as a sexual predator.
“When Sheldon stood up and finally outed Graham (in 1996) it all became clear why we weren’t able to get help after the bus crash,” said Wilkie, whose life was so dominated by the trauma of the crash he wrote about about it in a 2013 book called Sudden Death: The Incredible Saga of the 1986 Swift Current Broncos.
“We weren’t allowed to talk about it for fear his dirty secret would come out. My mom wondered for years why we were never given any of the resources we needed to cope with it properly. Those who wanted help were told ‘no’ by Graham. Now we know why.”
James has been in and out of jail for sexually abusing Kennedy, Theoren Fleury, and Todd Holt — Fleury’s cousin — while facing similar accusations from several other players.
Wilkie, Kennedy and Soberlak struggled for years with nightmares, flashbacks and guilt stemming from the accident.
Why did they survive? What more could they have done to help?
Nagging, haunting, legitimate questions that all should have been directed at professionals, instead of drunken teammates in billets’ basements during recurring meltdowns over the years.
Wilkie and Kennedy were both drafted by the Detroit Red Wings and were labeled as talented trouble makers due to their penchant for drugs and alcohol. They used to numb the pain of the type of trauma the world has since learned can have lifelong effects. Wilkie played just 18 NHL games and Kennedy’s rocky NHL stint saw him bounce around as he battled his now-obvious off-ice struggles.
Both will forever wonder what could have been had their heads been on straight, their bodies clear of contaminants and their focus laser sharp. After all, they both played on Canada’s under-18 team with, amongst other longtime NHLers, Chris Joseph, whose son, Jaxon Joseph, was one of the 15 killed outside Tisdale, Sask., late Friday afternoon when a semi-trailer collided with the Humboldt Broncos team bus.
This emotional journey back to Saskatchewan really does bring them full circle. (In that vein, his billets’ three-year-old daughter was one of the emergency doctors treating players from the crash Friday).
“I still don’t like buses. It brings back that feeling,” said Wilkie, who took decades to find the tools and help necessary to help him move forward to the point he now helps young players with the mental side of the journey.
“It’s a lifelong sentence, man. These kids will never be the same and I think that’s the most painful part. But what’s going to be the difference with these kids is the help they’ll be given.”
From people like Wilkie, Kennedy, Soberlak and Darren Kruger, who lost his brother Scotty in the 1986 crash and simply wants to lend his heart and hands to the cause.
“Talking to Bob Friday night we decided if there’s something we can do we’d love to go there and show our support,” said Kruger, who scouted Humboldt Broncos defenceman Layne Matechuk and reached out to the family who are with the 18-year-old as he lies in a coma with severe head and upper-body injuries.
“Back then we didn’t have really anybody to talk to or deal with. Colleen McBain was a high school counsellor who was great, but there weren’t many resources there. I didn’t deal with a lot of counsellors, but more just family and friends’ support that slowly got us through the days. These days there are resources that will help guide them through.”
As Wilkie’s mother, Judy, said, “Thank god there’s no Graham James in the middle of all of this because he wouldn’t allow them to get the support they needed. These boys will.”
“We need to be there, doing anything we can,” he said. “The number of victims involved goes far beyond the survivors.”
And even though they aren’t armed with counselling certificates, these lads can help because they’ve lived it.
They know what’s coming next.
“It’s going to be dark for a while. It’s going to be sad and consuming and frustrating and none of it makes sense,” said Wilkie, whose quartet will attend Sunday night’s vigil in Humboldt with thousands of others.
“As hard as this is going to be for a while they will be much stronger. They will be inspired and more driven and once they get to the other side it will be OK.
“There isn’t a thing in my life where I haven’t looked back and said, ‘If I can survive that, I can survive anything.’ If someone would have told me that after the accident I would have told them off, but it is the truth.”
And that’s the message they’ll deliver to first responders, family members, players and anyone else they come across devastated by a tragedy that has gripped the nation.
For Wilkie, Kennedy and Soberlak it has been more than 31 years of wondering what else they could do to help out that horrible, snowy day on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway.
Now they know.
God bless them for acting on it.