In a way, Dave Tippett never left the bus.
As word spread that the Humboldt Broncos’ charter was involved in a horrific crash last Friday evening, the former Coyotes coach opened up an email chain exclusive to his former seatmates with the early-1980s Prince Albert Raiders, then of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
Threads normally reserved for life updates and rehashing everlasting memories made on frigid nights spent in the backs of buses and on highways that connect small prairie towns to the network of junior hockey rinks dotted across the province were, for this night, replaced with exchanges of sadness, sorrow and dismay.
“It was certainly very emotional,” he said. “Very emotional.”
A small town not unlike the one where the Raiders formed their lasting bonds, Humboldt was shaken to its core by the tragic accident that took the lives of 10 hockey players, two coaches, a statistician, a radio play-by-play announcer, and the team’s athletic trainer and bus driver, while severely injuring several others.
Tippett, a Moosomin, Sask., native, has made countless trips that started just the same as the one that left Humboldt that evening.
It’s journeys like those that form the foundation to which the sport is built on.
As is the case with so many tragic events, what comes next has served as a reminder that there’s kindness and compassion in this world beyond what’s typically evident in most people’s daily lives. What’s come in the aftermath of the Humboldt crash — one of the single-most devastating moments in Canadian sports history — has been extraordinary.
A community’s remarkable strength, solidarity and selflessness in the face of tragedy, more than $8 million raised by hockey communities and compassionate citizens all over the globe with a GoFundMe account organized by a Humboldt native, kids commemorating those who passed by leaving sticks out on their front porches in the event that there’s a shortage in heaven.
“It speaks volumes to the character and culture that hockey creates,” Tippett said of the response. “And the respect for our game.”
The response has been beyond comprehension. Yet, in some ways, the groundswell of support we’ve seen for the victims and families affected by the tragic accident is unsurprising.
Anyone that’s piled equipment into the underbelly of a coach bus, lost their shirt in a card game on those folding plastic tables, sent or received a text confirming an arrival or rubbed tired eyes as snow pelted down on icy roads can easily sympathize with those affected by the tragic accident.
And anyone with ties to hockey culture can directly relate to the circumstances that led the Broncos up Highway 35.
Hockey, at any competitive level, necessitates that time on the bus will rival what’s spent in rinks. This is especially true out west.
So many have shared experiences to draw upon in reflective moments — this is the unique connection we, as Canadians and members of the hockey community, have to the Broncos.
What’s less understood is how woven junior hockey is into the culture of a place like Humboldt.
The Broncos are household names; the dyed-blonde hair the team wore wasn’t required for distinction. They are the entertainment, the escape and, most of all, an endless source of pride for residents, representing precisely what it means to belong to a town like Humboldt.
“A pillar of the community,” Tippett said of the Broncos’ role. “Sports and hockey in that culture has a way of bringing people together. Not just to watch the game but to be passionate about supporting your team and supporting your community.
“You’ve seen that for years and years — not just in small-town Saskatchewan, but all across Canada.”
Second nature is how Tippett described the response from the citizens of Humboldt and the surrounding area in the aftermath of Friday’s tragic accident — there was no need for prompting.
Whether it was printing shirts through the night to raise money or bringing a pot of soup to the rink to feed those working tirelessly ahead of the vigil, what resources and skills possessed by the fewer than 6,000 residents of the prairie town are being tapped into to promote the healing process.
Humboldt will never be the same. Forever there will be reminders of those boys, and the others riding that bus with dreams of their own, and their memories will never leave the community’s conscience.
But there will be progress. And some day soon, more and more progress until it comes to a point where those picking up the pieces now need to be uplifted themselves.
That’s where the Humboldt Broncos will come in.
“It’s pivotal that the team comes back,” Tippett said. “As much as the people mean to the team (right now), the team means so much to those people, too.”
Whether it’s next season, or years down the line, the town needs a hockey team to rally behind.
“I know the people of Humboldt will get through this,” said Tippett.
“It’ll draw them closer to each other than they were before.”