For junior hockey players, the bus is more than a ride to the game

The Humboldt tragedy resonates especially deeply for current and former players who've experienced junior hockey's bus culture.

On the road, teammates bond, play cribbage and become a 'family'

Tristan Jones, left, is pictured with Armstrong Sharks teammate Christoph Heinze. (Submitted by Tristan Jones)

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For junior league hockey teams, the bus is a home away from home.

"Everyone in there is one of your brothers," Tristan Jones, a former hockey player, told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. "It's so unlike any other feeling that's for sure."

When Jones heard the news that 15 people died and 14 others were injured in a bus crash carrying the Humboldt Broncos hockey team outside of Tisdale, Sask., on Friday, it left him — like many other Canadians, he said — with a heavy heart.

"To see something like this is just very upsetting."

For two years, Jones travelled across Ontario for games. Cribbage boards were often at the ready. When he wasn't playing cards, he was getting to know his teammates.

Olympic women's hockey gold medallist Hayley Wickenheiser knows trips like these well.

"It's a place where only the team can go. A lot happens on the bus," she told CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

"It's a real gathering place … you spend a lot of hours [on the bus]. We have a big country, and it's just really part of bonding as a team."

Retired women's hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser describes the Humboldt crash as a 'national tragedy.' (Antonio Calanni/Associated Press)

What makes it a family

Dustyn McFaul is new to junior hockey but already knows about hockey bus culture. The 17-year-old plays defence on the Pickering Panthers junior team.

Dustyn McFaul plays left defence for the Pickering Panthers, an Ontario Junior Hockey League team. (OJHL Images)

He told The Current that travelling by bus is an experience that you "can't beat."

"The more bus rides you go on, the more stories that are shared, the closer you become and that's what makes it a family," he said.

More than a family, the bus is "where a lot of the culture of every team is formed," Jones added.

Not every bus is the same, however. While some team owners opt to charter a bus when they need it, one team Jones played for took a different approach.

"Our owner had actually purchased an old school bus and painted it blue," he said with a laugh.

It was hardly luxurious. With no cargo storage underneath, players threw their wet equipment in the back of the bus. They also wrapped themselves in blankets during frigid northern Ontario winters.

"We would basically just cuddle up in the back of the bus to stay warm whether we were driving to the hotel or if we were driving to another city," Jones said.

'It's a national family'

That bus family and its culture extend beyond road trips, too.

Many junior league players move between cities, away from their biological family, to play for local teams. In each town they play, teams get together to host local events, Jones said. They even become local celebrities.

"The smaller the community, the more aware they are of their team and the more important those teams are to them," Jones said.

"I know when I was a 19-year-old, it was shocking and amazing to have kids come up to you, wanting your autograph."


Being swapped from team to team, having a family in each of the towns he played was crucial — and with so many young Canadians in the sport, the family is larger than it seems.

"It's a national family ... It's not just a one team thing," he said.


'It has to continue'

It's that countrywide family, Jones believes, that fuels the outpouring of support for the Humboldt Broncos.

Wickenheiser, who was instrumental in spreading the word about a GoFundMe campaign that has raised over $5 million, sees just how much it has resonated.

"It's a national tragedy, but it's also world news," she said.

"It's innocence lost, in a heartbeat."

Members of the now-defunct Armstrong Sharks junior hockey league team. (Submitted by Tristan Jones)

Whatever the support, Jones hopes that it won't include cancelled games or putting bus trips on hold — "[hockey] has to continue," he said.

"As difficult as it is for for Humboldt, I know that the people there would not want things to stop because the teams that are playing for them … mean so much to those communities."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was written by Jason Vermes and produced by The Current's Idella Sturino and Karin Marley.