The death of seven high school basketball players in Bathurst, N.B. last weekend provided one prominent hockey dad with a stark reminder of the perils of young athletes traveling on Canadian roads to tournaments in the middle of winter.
Kenn Sullivan, the father of Nashville Predators center Steve Sullivan, was the coach of the Timmins A&W Bears Atom AAA team when three of his players and two parents were killed in an accident on their way to a tournament in Rouyn-Noranda.
The eerie thing for Sullivan was that the Bathurst accident, which killed seven players and the coach’s wife, occurred almost 20 years to the day after his players were killed.
It still haunts Sullivan that when he arrived at the accident scene, he reached into the wreckage to try and pull one of the youngsters out, only to discover the boy was already dead. Sullivan had to leave the scene and watch helplessly because there were concerns the pickup truck, which collided with a five-ton truck, would explode.
“I think about it a lot, certainly every time I go over that bridge,” said Sullivan, who is a sales representative for Molson Breweries and spends much of his time driving around northern Ontario. “I can still remember the fire and me trying to pull one of the kids out. I remember going back to the van and the kids telling me we could turn around and there was another way we could go to Rouyn and me not wanting to tell them that it was three of their teammates.”
The day was Jan. 14, 1988 and right after a team practice, five cars full of players and parents set out for Quebec for a weekend tournament. Sullivan said he was traveling with his assistant coach and several players and had been passed by the doomed vehicle when Sullivan stopped for a bite to eat on the way out of town.
“It would have been a close call for us if we would have kept on going,” Sullivan said.
Killed in the crash were players Ali Eren, 11, Geoffrey Robert Jones, 12, and Sylvain Bradette, 11, as well as Bradette’s parents, Alain and Lise. The pickup truck apparently hit an ice patch during a freezing rain and collided with the truck.
Sullivan knows that had the players lived, they would have been in their early 30’s now and making their way in the working world, probably with hockey playing children of their own. He said he still keeps in contact with the other players on the team, many of whom live and work in the northern Ontario mining city.
“It’s always a reminder,” Sullivan said, “and it’s always right there.”
Sullivan said that after a lot of reflection, the team decided to finish out the season, but didn’t replace any of the players. Eren was one of two goalies on the team, so they went with one goalie the rest of the way. Understandably, the team didn’t do very well, but Sullivan thought it was important to keep the players focused on something other than the tragedy.
“Now you are there just to make sure they have fun,” Sullivan said. “We made sure everything was just low-key and made sure that we didn’t just go through the motions, but made sure that we realized that hockey was secondary at that point.”
Sullivan, a longtime hockey volunteer in Timmins, was still coaching the atom team at that time, despite the fact that Steve and his older brother had already moved on to higher age levels. Sullivan remained involved in minor hockey, basically until Steve made it as an NHL player, but he never traveled to a tournament or a game out of town in a car again.
“That was the last time any team I coached didn’t take a bus,” Sullivan said.