Nova Scotian athletes ‘heartbroken’ by tragedy of mass shooting

A person leaves flowers at a make-shift memorial dedicated to Constable Heidi Stevenson at RCMP headquarters in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Monday, April 20, 2020. Investigators say a killer's use of a mock police cruiser and an RCMP uniform almost identical to the real thing helped him escape detection as he travelled between 16 crime scenes in a rampage that has left at least 19 dead in Nova Scotia. (Riley Smith/CP)

One of the best Nova Scotian athletes in history needs just a single word to describe the current situation in her province — "surreal."

Six-time national women’s curling champion Colleen Jones, now a reporter with CBC, has been living out the grim aftermath of Sunday’s killing rampage with fellow Nova Scotians at work and at home.

"Seeing the quiet of the place and realizing the hell that happened on the weekend — it’s hard to even envision it," said Jones, voted the province’s second-best athlete of all time behind Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby in 2017 by the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame.

"And the horror of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, that he had the planning and thought of impersonating an RCMP officer is even more heartbreaking. That of course people would have opened their doors or stopped their car if they saw him in his vehicle. It’s just such a horrific thing in such an idyllic province. So many innocent people and the shattered lives that can’t grieve properly in a traditional way (because of the COVID-19 pandemic)."

While Jones has a first-hand look at a province trying to come to grips with at least 23 lives lost, other prominent Nova Scotian athletes can only watch in shock from afar.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats receiver Brian Jones, a native of Enfield, N.S., now living in Toronto, has been at the gas station and restaurant where the rampage ended "countless times."

The killing of the active shooter on Sunday in a community with a population of just under 5,000 capped a lengthy police chase that is now the subject of international headlines.

"It’s just hard to put words together right now, honestly, to describe what’s happened," Jones said. "It seems so random, so arbitrary. Right where the guy ended up getting taken down is literally within 10 minutes from my house where I grew up. It kind of puts things into perspective. It’s a crazy, crazy, crazy, terrible time for a lot of people right now."

Saskatchewan Roughriders kicker Brett Lauther is a native of Truro, N.S., just down the highway from where the horror started in Portapique.

Like Jones, an Acadia product, Lauther also played his university football in his home province at Saint Mary’s in Halifax.

"Obviously, just completely heartbroken," Lauther said. "The whole area it kind of covered was all where I grew up. It started about 20-30 minutes north of Truro and went right down past it towards Enfield where it ended. It’s just such a small, strong tight-knit community.

"… I’ve got some crazy text messages on my phone from my friends, family, RCMP, other officers, people I know there. It couldn’t have hit home more.

"There are no words."

Colleen Jones is facing the added challenge of trying to cover a tragedy at home as a veteran reporter.

"You do need to handle it with extreme caution," she said. "These are uncharted times for any reporter. Nobody has seen anything like this in Canada before and we’re in the middle of a pandemic on top of it. People’s emotions even before this were high because we have a lot of people who have lost jobs, we have a lot of people who can’t visit loved ones in senior homes, we have the COVID-19 crisis in our long-term care homes. People were already pretty emotional. Now you add this incredible tragedy that has such huge tentacles."

Fellow curler Jennifer Baxter, the second for Mary-Anne Arsenault’s Nova Scotia champion team this season, also is seeing the news affect her work. The Halifax resident is a resource learning centre teacher at a junior high school.

"As teachers, we’re definitely concerned about our students," she said. "We’ve been concerned about our students with this whole virus and this just adds another layer to it.

"It’s just taking a little bit of time today to connect with the people you want to connect with and making sure that the shock of it all is not as harsh as it could be, especially knowing that we can’t really connect in person."

Canadian women’s hockey forward Blayre Turnbull called the tragedy "really devastating." Most of Turnbull’s family still lives in her hometown of Stellarton, and she has other relatives elsewhere in Nova Scotia.

"It’s and it’s been really hard to wrap my head around how something so tragic could ever happen in a place like Nova Scotia where everyone is so friendly and you’re always greeted with a smile," Turnbull told the Canadian Press from Kelowna, B.C. "Where I live, I don’t ever remember locking my door at night or any time during the day if we ever left the house because it’s such a safe place where everybody is trustworthy and everybody acts as if you’re their neighbour and you’re their best friend.

"I hope we can stay united and still remain the friendly and safe place the province has always been."

Other prominent Nova Scotia athletes took to social media to express their thoughts. Crosby sent out his condolences Tuesday on the twitter feed of his charitable foundation. Heidi Stevenson, an RCMP officer who was killed in the shooting spree, was from Crosby’s home town of Cole Harbour.

"I would like to extend my deepest condolences to the family of Heidi Stevenson of Cole Harbour, and to all the families who have lost loved ones and have been affected by this terrible act," Crosby said.

"This tragic event has devastated communities throughout Nova Scotia, but I know we will come together and help each other get through this. I am thinking of everyone at home."

Hockey Hall of Fame defenceman Al MacInnis, a native of Inverness, tweeted "Unthinkable, prayers to everyone affected by this senseless act."

Meanwhile, Schooner Sports and Entertainment, the group trying to bring a CFL club to Halifax, announced it will contribute the first $1,000 toward any fund established to support the victims’ families.

Turnbull said the tragedy is magnified in a tight-knit community like the one she is from.

"The grief that everybody is feeling has been completely suffocating. There’s not six degrees of separation in Nova Scotia. There’s hardly one," she said. "It’s time likes these where maybe you notice that more than other times. It’s been really difficult for everybody at home.

"It’s something the province will be affected by for a really long time, but if we can continue to be united and show support for one another, that’s the only way we’re going to be able to come out stronger from this."

Colleen Jones thinks the resiliency of her province, which has dealt with several mining and fishing disasters along with the Halifax Explosion in 1917, will be on display in the weeks and months ahead.

"It’s a province where Sidney Crosby can come and still shop in Sobeys when he’s here for the summer and nobody bothers him," Jones said. "And Anne Murray can go golf at her golf course up on the Northumberland Strait and nobody bothers her. Because I think it’s a province where everybody does know everybody or two degrees of separation.

"I think there’s a humility to the province drawn from hard times in the past. This is a province that economically-speaking — it’s always had a struggle. So people helping people is the only control you’ve got in some of the uncontrollable situations. I think we all watched our grandmothers and grandfathers and mothers and fathers help others and you learn by that example."

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