'Joy sprang out of our grief': Parents of misidentified Humboldt Bronco describe coroner mix-up

The parents of a Humboldt Bronco hockey player misidentified after a deadly crash on a Saskatchewan highway say they weren't convinced the battered body lying in the funeral home was really their son.

LaBelles share story in victim impact statement at sentencing hearing for truck driver in Melfort, Sask.

Tanya and Paul Labelle's son Xavier survived the crash but was reported to be among the dead. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The parents of a Humboldt Bronco hockey player misidentified after a deadly crash on a Saskatchewan highway say they weren't convinced the battered body lying in the funeral home was really their son.

Paul and Tanya LaBelle of Saskatoon described for the first time in court Wednesday their confusion and anguish at being told over and over that their boy had to be dead, planning for his funeral and then getting a phone call that there had been a terrible mistake.

Xavier LaBelle was alive and in hospital.

"Joy sprang out of our grief in an exponential way," said Paul LaBelle. "We arrived at his bedside with kisses and very, very gentle hugs."

Humboldt Broncos player Xavier LaBelle in hospital. (Submitted by Takt Communications)

But the couple said they also felt pain for the parents who thought Xavier was their son and had been comforting him and holding his hands for nearly three days in the hospital. Parker Tobin of Stony Plain, Alta. was actually among those who had died and it was his body in the funeral home.

"We know they cared for him as a son and we are forever grateful," said Tanya LaBelle. "We grieved with them as they came to terms with the realization that their amazing son had not survived.

"We were devastated for them and their family."  

Parker Tobin, whose parents are from Newfoundland, was a goalie for the Humboldt Broncos. (Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League)

The LaBelles shared their story in a victim impact statement at a sentencing hearing for the truck driver who barrelled through a stop sign and into the path of the junior hockey team's bus last April.

Jaskirat Singh Sidhu of Calgary has pleaded guilty to 29 counts of dangerous driving.

Over three days, families of the dead and injured have taken turns reading dozens of heart-wrenching statements in a makeshift courtroom in Melfort.

'Gone the entire time, but we never knew'

Tobin's family spoke briefly Tuesday. Myrtle Tobin struggled to describe what she went through after learning her 18-year-old grandson was not the boy in the hospital.

"To discover that Parker had been gone the entire time, but we never knew ... our family has leaned on one another to get through the days, weeks and months that have followed."

Paul LaBelle, an emergency room doctor, said Wednesday that his family had been travelling to watch the Broncos play in Nipawin when they came across the wreckage from the crash. He grabbed his medical bag and ran down the highway to help, but was turned away by RCMP.

After they were informed that their 18-year-old son was among the dead, they were sent to a makeshift morgue at a funeral home to identify his body.

They were shown one body that they knew wasn't their son. Staff apologized and showed them another body. Again, it was not their boy, they said.

Mother pleaded for police to search crash site again

"We were very anxious and confused," recalled Paul LaBelle.

"Maybe Xavier was still trapped at the scene or perhaps he had wandered off into a field unnoticed?

"We were assured all 29 people on the bus were accounted for."

Still unconvinced, he said he and his wife went to the Saskatoon hospital and showed nurses caring for the injured Broncos photos of Xavier.

"The staff members were sympathetic but they let us know all the players were identified and our son was not there."

Tanya LaBelle said she pleaded for police to search the crash site again with dogs but was told no one had been left behind.

That's when it began to sink in that maybe their grief was blinding them. Maybe Xavier was dead.

They went back to the morgue and looked over the one body that had yet to be identified. It had no scars or birthmarks matching Xavier. So they arranged for his orthodontic records to be ordered.

"We needed to be 100 per cent sure," Paul LaBelle said.

In the meantime, the family accepted that the body might be Xavier. They held him and bawled their eyes out and started making funeral arrangements.

Miraculous phone call

Logan Hunter, Adam Herold and Xavier LaBelle each became a special part of their billet sisters' lives. (Submitted by Rene Cannon)

It was two days later, while they were at a vigil in Humboldt honouring those who died, that they received the miraculous phone call. They discreetly went outside to tell other family members the news, then rushed to Saskatoon.

The coroner's office apologized at the time for the mistake, saying several of the players had dyed their hair blonde for the playoff season and weren't carrying identification when the bus crashed.

A coroner also said that the mistake was realized when Xavier LaBelle woke up and said, "I'm not Parker Tobin."

Xavier LaBelle takes part in physiotherapy treatment at Saskatoon City Hospital, during his recovery from the April 6 team bus crash. (Tanya LaBelle)

Paul LaBelle told court that his son suffered serious injuries, including fractures and gashes to his face, along with brain trauma, spine fractures and nerve damage in his legs and left arm.

He continues to require medical care.


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