Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock has driven that stretch of Highway 35 in rural Saskatchewan more times than he cares to remember. He’s played and coached in junior hockey, the minors and at the college level, where the bus is not only a form of transportation, it’s a sanctuary. Like everyone else, he knows the risks associated with travelling in the dead of winter to chase your dream and play the game you love.
But as he stood at the podium of the Air Canada Centre trying to make sense of the Humboldt Broncos tragedy that took 15 lives on that Saskatchewan highway, he was overcome by emotion, probably as emotional as he’s ever been in public during his career as an NHL coach. He struggled to find words and once he found them, he struggled even harder to get them out. Tears welled up in his eyes and he came very close to completely breaking down.
“I can’t even imagine a parent or a wife or kids at home going through something like this,” Babcock said. “You can’t make up for loss. You can’t. It rips the heart right out of your chest. I don’t know what else you say. Horrific, horrific accident. Tough day.”
Before they all became millionaire players and coaches, every one of them rode a bus at one point during their careers. Every one of them. The teenagers being selected in the Ontario League draft today will spend at least the next couple of seasons riding buses. Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly talked about his days at the Athol College at Notre Dame, Sask., going from Wilcox to Prince Albert in a school bus. He spoke about his days in the Western League with the Moose Jaw Warriors and how they’d make a trip of more than 500 miles from Kootenay overnight and have to be at school in the morning. Leo Komarov said the tragedy brought back memories of the 2011 plane crash that killed the entire Yaroslavl team in the KHL. Komarov was playing for Moscow Dynamo at the time and knew a number of the Yaroslavl players. He was good friends with Karel Rachunek and was teammates the previous season with Mikhail Balandin. He and his teammates spent the following days attending funerals.
“That’s why it hits close to home for everybody,” said Leafs left winger Patrick Marleau, the father to four hockey-playing boys and a native of Swift Current, Sask. “It could easily have…I could see in a few years my kids being on a road trip.”
Over on the Montreal side, suddenly the prospect of closing out a miserable season just didn’t seem all that important. Canadiens coach Claude Julien also struggled to find the right things to say and to put a perspective on an unthinkable tragedy. The hockey world has seen quite a bit of sadness lately. Three weeks ago, a promising 15-year-old goalie in Toronto, Roy Pejcinovski, was murdered along with his mother and sister in a triple homicide. And the hockey world learned earlier on Friday that Jonathan Pitre, a friend of the hockey world and young man who faced a painful, debilitating disease, had died at the age of 17. Compounding the tragedy from a hockey perspective is the fact that one of the players who died was Jaxon Joseph, the son of former NHLer Chris Joseph.
“I stand here and I’ve got shivers going down my body because you can just imagine what everyone is going through right now,” Julien said. “You look at those things and you take a step back. And you honestly tell yourself, ‘This is a big league, but it’s only a job and there are things that are way more important in life than what we do.’ It makes you think of your families and everything that is really important in life. It’s no doubt those are reminders of how tragedy can happen so quickly.”
Travel is a way of life for everyone involved in elite hockey and nobody goes through it without logging thousands of miles on buses. It’s a place where teenagers often become men, where unbreakable bonds are forged and friendships are made that endure long after the game and keep those who made it and those who didn’t connected. It’s where hockey players learn to memorize the lines from Slap Shot.
“Even for me, my best memories are riding the bus and doing what junior hockey players do, playing cards, talking, watching movies,” Rielly said. “I was just saying that even when you talk to guys in this room or on different teams that you might meet along the way, it’s the first thing you talk about. ‘Oh, what was your longest bus ride?’ And compare.”
“It’s the bonding,” said Canadiens forward Byron Froese. “It’s where you build your friendships, where you build you relationships. Some of your best memories come from on the bus.”
The tragedy certainly made people at the rink pause for introspection. In a meaningless game at the end of a season for one team, the beginning of a new season for another, their thoughts were definitely in another place. “We’re lucky to be here and we’re lucky to get this opportunity,” Froese said. “When you play in the NHL or anywhere professionally, you remember all the guys who tried and couldn’t make it or didn’t get the opportunity to play, so you’ve got to be thankful for every day you get spend playing this game. You don’t know when your last game is, so you have to enjoy every one.”