Humboldt Broncos tragedy reminder how precarious bus trips can be in minor sports

Every year, thousands of teenage athletes travel millions of kilometres by bus in search of their dreams. Anybody who has been on one of these bus trips knows they can be long, tedious trips often on isolated, dark and dangerous highways.

'You don't ever think anything like this could happen,' says hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser

Mourners attend a vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, to honour the victims of a fatal bus accident last week. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Every year, thousands of teenage athletes travel millions of miles by bus in search of their dreams. Anybody who has been on one of these bus trips knows they can be long, tedious trips often on isolated, dark highways.

In minor sports, travelling between far flung outposts by bus is usually where one learns about their teammates and deep bonds are forged.

"It's as important as the ice. You need three things to play a game: players, officials and a puck," Edmonton Oilers coach Todd McLellan told reporters. 

"But for all of those things to happen you've got to get all of those people to the facilities and when you are travelling in large groups you are on a bus."

It was late Friday evening when the charter bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior A hockey team collided with a semi-trailer at an intersection northeast of Saskatoon.

Fifteen members of the team and organization were killed. The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League team was heading to Nipawin, Sask., for a semifinal game against the Nipawin Hawks.

McLellan is a Saskatchewan native and spent years playing and coaching in the province. He has been on countless bus trips like the team from Humboldt.

"There are nights three, four o'clock in the morning, freezing cold, conditions aren't that great and they are pushing through it. [The bus] is part of the fabric of our game."

'It was rewarding to go spend time with that group': Todd McLellan reflects on visit to Humboldt

5 years ago
Duration 3:42
Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan spoke to members of the media about his recent trip to Humboldt, Saskatchewan to offer his support to injured players and grieving citizens after tragic bus crash.

'Everybody can relate'

Humboldt Mayor Rob Muench echoed McLellan's thoughts.

"This tragedy has hit a number of people, not just us, but I think everybody can relate to this experience," said Muench. 

"Throughout Canada we see teams going out into the Canadian winters on buses all the time, and it's always a thought in parents' and fans' minds about what can happen and unfortunately has happened here."

Maybe that's why the outpouring of emotion from the hockey community has been so raw and genuine.

They have all spent many joy filled hours on the bus. A place often recalled as a safe, impenetrable cocoon away from the ice.

"Everyone in hockey has done it. In junior, you are travelling these far distances. That's why it hits home, everyone has been on that bus before," Oilers forward Connor McDavid told reporters.

"You are with all of the boys and having a good time. And it never crossed my mind that something like that could happen when I was on the bus. We would hit the rumble strips or something and guys would laugh and think it was funny and never thought anything would happen. I saw it as a haven, a safe space."

"Some of the best times you spend with your teammates is on the bus," said Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak. "All of us has spent lots of time on buses and it's just a tragedy." 

"You create a lot of memories there. That's where the majority of time is spent with your coaches and teammates. You feel safe there and never feel like anything could happen."

Humboldt, Sask., Mayor Rob Muench understands bus travel is a reality of life in junior hockey. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

'Feel pretty invincible'

Canadian hockey legend and Saskatchewan native Hayley Wickenheiser said when you're young you savour the experiences of travelling with teammates.

"Early on in your career, you get on the bus and you feel pretty invincible. At 18,19 years old you don't ever think anything like this could happen. You feel pretty protected and secure on the highways because you are bigger than most vehicles," Wickenheiser told CBC.

"The bus is a place where only the team can go. A lot happens on the bus; it has its own kind of weird dynamic."

The four-time Olympian said the culture of the bus is so entrenched across sports that she knew who had likely been hurt in the accident.

"When I heard a semi hit the front of the bus, I knew who would have been wiped out. It's usually the staff and the rookies in the front and the veterans in the back."

Wickenheiser said that as her career went on, she became more wary of extensive bus travel.

"You start thinking about some of the 'what ifs' and some of the conditions we were driving through. We would go through snowstorms and come upon accidents in some sketchy conditions on these very roads across Western Canada. So it's very real, it hits home."


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