My heart aches today.
I first heard about the Humboldt Broncos bus being in a crash last night.
On Friday, I was leaving a week of meetings in St. Louis and heading to Las Vegas to visit my aunt and uncle for the weekend. Then it would be off to San Francisco for three days and then Chicago to visit a few of my employees of the FarmLead team there for a few days.
Clearly I know life on the road.
When I woke up this morning, on Pacific time in Vegas, it was seemingly impossible what I was reading:
15 injured and in hospital. 3 critical.
My uncle and I reminisced about Highway #35 and how he’d seen me play against the Broncos a bunch of years ago in Humboldt during my SJHL days.
I went through my Saturday with him and my aunt in Vegas: a workout, breakfast, some FarmLead work, some emails…but I felt “blah” and decided that I needed to learn more about this accident.
I read that a semi T-boned the Humboldt team bus along highway #35, north of Tisdale, SK, but south of Nipawin, SK, where the bus was heading for a must-win Game 5 of a Best of 7. I then read another young man succumbed to his injuries, bringing the toll of this bus accident to 15.
You need to understand that the #35 highway is one that connects the northern and southern parts of Saskatchewan. If you’ve driven anywhere in Saskatchewan, you’ve probably driven some part of this highway. Especially if you played sports in Saskatchewan.
I’ve driven this specific stretch of #35 highway A LOT in my hockey days, playing with the Notre Dame Hounds in the SJHL (Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League). We’ve used this highway to drive to Humboldt to play against the Broncos!
In fact, I’ve battled and been sworn at and been booed out of the Elgar Peterson Arena there in Humboldt. But you know it’s all just part of the game and take it stride (if not enjoying the fact that you played hard enough for the other team’s fans to notice you).
After those games, I got back on the bus, the same one as what the Humboldt Broncos players and coaches were traveling on.
A few years later, after pro hockey was done, I drove that #35 highway again, as I started up FarmLead. I gave presentations and spoke with farmers face-to-face in and around Humboldt, Tisdale, and Nipawin (among other small town Western Canadian communities).
The Hockey Bus Is Your Home
You have to understand that when you’re going through the grind of hockey (0r many other sports for that matter), the road becomes your home. Specific to hockey though, you fit 23 – 28 people on a 50-person bus and head down the highway.
While it’s different in every league at the Junior Hockey level, you’re driving, on average, a couple of hours to each away game. A movie might get put on, but most will try to get in a pre-game nap before the game.
Some guys will sleep on the floor of the bus with sleeping bags and pillows they bring with them.
Some sleep sprawled across the seats, legs crisscrossing the aisle between the two rows of seats.
When you get near your destination of the game, someone yells, “Time to Wake Up.” or “Game Time”, and you rub your eyes, and get ready. Depending on the level of hockey, this might be changing into your suit and tie that you must wear to the rink or just grabbing your tracksuit and zipping it up.
And after the game, win or lose, you gotta get back on that bus.
Yes, you get to see your family or friends for a few minutes – They also traveled a few hours to see you play.
The equipment manager or assistant coach will duck their head out the door of the bus and say “the bus is about to leave boys. Everyone on!”
And you say, to your friends or family something along the lines of “Well, thanks for coming and talk to you soon.”
A hug follows.
If it’s a family member or girlfriend, a parting “Love You”.
And then it’s back on the bus.
And you gotta drive to the next place you’re playing. Or it’s back to your home rink. Regardless, you’re on the bus for another few hours.
If you lose, you get a lot of time to think on the bus because it’s usually pretty quiet for the first hour or two. You look at the passing farms and farmland, trees, or traffic as you go through a city.
You think about the game. What you did right. What you could’ve done differently. The player you battled hard against all night.
You think about your actual home. Your family. Your girlfriend waiting for you back home, which could be in a completely different city, province or state, or country.
And you think about getting your shot to the next level. About the scouts who might’ve been there. And what it might mean to get a scholarship. Or drafted. Or called up to the next level. Or the chance to actually play an NHL game.
The Hockey Bus is Your Family
The reverse of this is when things are good, and you’re winning!
You play a lot of card games. You crack jokes. There’s a funny movie playing. And when you get older and play in the minor leagues, you have some beers on the bus. And it’s a great place to be, that bus.
There is no one you’re around more than your team. And you spent a lot of it in the dressing room and in practice.
But you spend a lot more time on the bus.
When you’re not from the community you play in, who do you lean on? It’s the ones around you’re around every day. Your teammates. Your coaches. Maybe your billet.
But mostly your teammates. They become your brothers (or for women’s sports, your sisters).
You sit next to them in the locker room. At pre-game meals. And on the bus.
You wear the same jersey with the same logo on the front.
You go through the same killer workouts and bag skates.
You come from similar backgrounds, which, in Saskatchewan, is often a small town or the farm.
And you go into battle together, pushing and encouraging each other to play great.
“Do it for the guy (girl) sitting next to ya!” is often a rallying cry heard in the dressing room.
You are family since your real family isn’t there to go through this with you.
And on the bus is where the culture of a team can be built or destroyed. If you’re not a family on the bus and the dressing room, you won’t be one on the ice.
This Bus Impacts All of Us
When I read more articles about the Humboldt accident, memories of “riding the bus” came flooding back.
I have funny memories, like when the bus is stuck and you and the rest of the team get off to try and push it out. This happened in Hamilton, NY before a game against Colgate when I played at Yale – it couldn’t get up the hill coming out of the icy parking lot of our hotel).
Or when you have to change a flat in the middle of the night somewhere on a rural Virginia highway (we were in the middle of 14-hour, overnight bus ride to South Carolina, and the driver didn’t know how to change the tire so another guy from Saskatchewan and I did it).
But you have scary moments on the bus too, like when the driver hits the brakes hard, avoiding a crossing animal. Or another vehicle getting too close.
And reading what I read, I started to cry.
I was thinking about the times that I’ve just shared with you. The Brotherhood. The camaraderie. The struggles. And the triumphs.
And all those things – the good and the bad – start when you get on that bus. And it certainly stays with you when you get off the bus.
This is why you see a lot of NHLers sharing their support, thoughts, and prayer. This is why many NHL teams are donating their 50/50 proceeds and much more to the Humboldt Broncos Go Fund Me page.
They get it. They rode those buses too. So did their coaches. So did their scouts. So did their front office people. They get it.
And so do your Dad and Mom, who saw you ride the bus, or did it themselves. And that’s why they care and are donating.
Same thing with your Uncle.
And the same thing with me.
We Gotta Get Back on the Bus, Just Not Yet
Look at these beautiful boys. Look at these brothers. I don’t know them, but I love them.
I was them.
They are/were 17-21 years old.
Getting ready for a playoff game.
About to go into battle with their brothers. Possibly the last game of the season if they didn’t win.
We ALL are impacted by this tragedy. We ALL have family members who have traveled long distances for sports, especially if you’re from a rural, farming area, like many of these young men were.
In the last few years, I’ve really learned and lived the phrase that “life comes at you fast.”
There are certainly days in the summer where I wish I could be under an open Saskatchewan Prairie sky. Or, in the winter, out snowmobiling with the boys. But I will admit, I’m out there on the road a lot, loving what I do in trying to help farmers be better at selling their grain and making grain trade easier. And instead of riding buses, I’m riding planes.
But this isn’t about a company or me.
It’s about acknowledging these moments and slowing down.
I’m a big guy. Some would say a “tough” guy (there are some YouTube videos out there to prove this).
But I’m also big and tough enough to say this one hurts. It cuts really deep.
And I’ll also say it feels damn good to let out some tears for these beautiful boys, their families, Saskatchewan, and the hockey world in general.
We gotta get back on the bus that is “life”, eventually.
But let’s give ourselves a chance to spend a moment with our families and friends and say “Love You”. Give them a big hug. Give them a big kiss.
There are 15 beautiful lives who are not going to be able to able to come out of the dressing room again and do that with theirs.
And more than ever, those families and the boys who survived are the ones we gotta be supporting and show love to. It’s going to be tough because they’re hurting more than anyone. And that bus that is life is a real bitch to ride right now.
There’s no timeline or magic date where things start to feel right again. I’ve learned this in the past year since one of my best buddies suddenly passed away last year. It’s not easy. It takes time.
And the bus can wait a few more minutes for everyone.
For those battling this, we got you. We’re here for you. We love you.
And for the boys we’ve lost, Rest in Peace;
We love you more than you’ll have ever known.