HUMBOLDT, Sask. – Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, there is not a manual or a playbook that can tell a Jr. A league what to do if one of its teams essentially gets wiped out in the middle of the playoffs. So it should come as no surprise that the Saskatchewan Junior League doesn’t know how, or even if, it will carry on with this season after Friday’s bus accident that killed 10 players and five other team personnel for the Humboldt Broncos.
For now, everything is on hold while the Broncos and the rest of the league heal. Had the Broncos won the game they were headed to in nearby Nipawin on Friday night, Game 6 of the SJHL semifinal series would have been played on Sunday night. Instead, the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt was open to thousands of mourners instead of hockey fans as the city held a vigil for the dead and injured.
SJHL president Bill Chow said the league is unsure what will happen next. The Estevan Bruins, who defeated the Battlefords North Stars in five games in the other semifinal, are also waiting. Chow said the league is considering whether to hold a final series between Nipawin and Estevan or simply scrap the playoffs altogether and not have a champion this season. One thing is certain though, the Broncos simply cannot ice a team.
“Let’s be honest, Humboldt doesn’t have a team,” Chow said. “That’s not going to happen. We have to decide what we’re doing and how we’re going forward or are we going forward? Those decisions haven’t been made yet and we haven’t had a discussion one way or the other.”
It is time sensitive, but the league is not under the gun to make a hasty decision. The Anavet Cup series, which pits the SJHL champion against the winner of the Manitoba Junior League for the right to advance to the RBC Cup national Jr. A championship, is due to begin April 27. And the winner of that series has to be in Chilliwack, B.C., by May 11 in time for the RBC Cup.
It’s not an easy decision for anyone, and there are difficult questions to consider. Does the league do a disservice to the players’ memories and their families’ grief by continuing to play hockey so soon after such an enormous tragedy? Or does it provide its fans with some sense of normalcy and an opportunity to focus on something other than the heartache by holding a final series? Chow realizes the league has to move ahead at some point, but knows that the timing will not be right for everyone. “Whatever we do, there are going to people who agree and people who disagree and that’s fine,” Chow said. “We get that and we understand.”
In the face of what would seem to be insurmountable odds, the Broncos have already vowed that they will return to the SJHL next season. Chow said it’s too early to tell whether the league will hold some kind of dispersal draft to help stock the Broncos’ roster for 2018-19, but it’s something that will be considered.
“Whatever we do or don’t do, we have to do it with the blessings of the Humboldt Broncos,” Chow said. “We did have some conversations like that yesterday, but I never had a definite yes, like (the media) has been told. The Humboldt Broncos come first in any decision we make.”
One thing that remains is that this is a league that, despite the events of the past week, will always have to rely on bus travel during a precarious time of the year. The province of Saskatchewan is more than 400,000 square miles and 11 of the 12 teams are spread among more than half of that space. The other team, the Flin Flon Bombers, is located just on the other side of the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border. The league can put every safeguard possible to give the teenagers who play the best billet homes, the best schools and the greatest opportunities to further their careers, but they’ll still have to get on that bus.
“There’s no blueprint for something of this magnitude,” Chow said. “Something this horrific, this much of a nightmare. There’s nothing.”