In the Midst of a Horrific Tragedy, A Nation Forgets Where to Turn

By Janice Barlow

LATE IN THE AFTERNOON LAST FRIDAY, in the wide open expanses of western Canada, the unthinkable happened. A bus carrying a hockey team, a coach, an assistant coach, a young statistician, and a radio announcer was plowed into by a semi-truck. Fifteen people were killed and the rest were all injured. The small town of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, population 6,000, was forever changed.

Much of Canada lives and breathes hockey. Most of the children grow up knowing how to skate, and many dream of playing in the NHL or the women’s hockey league (NWHL). The talent has spilled over into the United States and across the globe, as most professional teams are comprised of a vast mix of unlikely players knitted together close as brothers.

As the tragedy unfolded and more details came to light throughout Saturday, I followed this event closer than I normally would. I came from a hockey family in Michigan. My two brothers skated from the time they could walk. My dad was a hockey coach for a travel team that my older brother played on. Although bus trips were not common – they rode in groups in vans with parents – it still felt too personal to when I heard about the accident.

My brother was talented enough to be a star defense player in regional leagues and he tried out for the Junior Red Wings at 18 years old. He was told to gain some weight and get stronger, and try again the next year. Unfortunately, a good job at General Motors and evening college prevented that from happening, although he continued playing for house leagues for several decades. A couple of the summer hockey camps he attended back in the early 1970’s in Sault Ste. Marie, were also attended by none other than Wayne Gretzky, who could skate circles around every boy in the camp. I was forced to tag along as these were our family vacations, and my dad enrolled me in speed skating classes. I was pretty good, but I never learned to stop properly, so that did not pan out.

Hockey is still in our blood.

My husband and I still watch Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights so we can catch the flamboyantly dressed Don Cherry (“Grapes”) between the first and second periods. He is quite the character, but very knowledgeable and highly respected.

Don Cherry, respected hockey commentator, always dresses in crazy trademark suit jackets

Don Cherry, (age 84), along with all the other commentators, coaches, and others well known in Canadian hockey circles, was interviewed by the media to get impressions of the catastrophe. All of them, to a one, said that the town was devastated and it would never be the same. People would need to lean on each other to draw strength and look to the future to get beyond this very dark place. And that they were praying.

Many of the players were not from Humboldt, Saskatchewan, but some were. The key was, that they were the hockey team, the Broncos, which represented that town; boys and young men whose ages ranged from 16 to 21 years old, on the cusp of their youth, with bright futures on the horizon. They were very talented, many with prospects of playing at least minor league hockey, and most likely, in the NHL. Everyone in the town was connected to at least one of them in some way.

On Saturday morning, an unusual number of people were out, milling around, talking, looking for answers, still in disbelief, struggling with the enormity of 15 lives suddenly gone, there yesterday, and then gone, as if they never were. But they had been. Where did they go? Where was the hope?

Peter Soberlak, a former pro ice-hockey player and now athletic performance advisor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, booked a flight to Saskatchewan shortly after news of the crash broke.

Soberlak is a survivor of a horrific bus crash in 1986 that killed four of his Swift Current Broncos teammates in Saskatchewan. He and two fellow survivors, Sheldon Kennedy and Bob Wilkie, hope to help Humboldt in whatever way they can.

“We just want to be there, we want to be together and we want to go and show support for the families and the survivors and the community, and let them know that we know what they’re going through,” he said.

Soberlak fears the tragedy will have lifelong, staggering effects on the team and families, first responders, friends, billet families and the community. The four teammates he lost in 1986 — Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Chris Mantyka, and Brent Ruff — are commemorated to this day with a WHL memorial trophy. Images of their faces are etched into a permanent memorial erected near the site of the accident in 2016.

“I don’t think we ever recover from these types of events,” Soberlak said. “I think we do the best with what we have to move on and deal with these challenges. But no, as far as recovering and moving on, it never happens.”

And that is what hit me the hardest. Canada, much like Europe, is a mostly secular and humanist society. They don’t talk about God, although they may have a tiny, in the back of their minds, belief in His existence. But when this accident was sinking in, of the professional players, coaches, commentators and others who said that all they could do was pray, their comment ended after the word, “pray”. They could not bring themselves to even say the word, “God“.

Without God, there is no hope.

There is no light at the end of the tunnel and there is no future to look to. The whole landscape is dark and bleak. These young sons, grandsons, brothers, friends, boyfriends went nowhere. They simply vanished.

This is not to say that Canada does not have some people who have put their faith and trust in the Lord and that He sent His only begotten Son to die for us, to make a way for our corrupt and imperfect human selves to become perfect eternal beings. It just is not evident. It has been left unspoken. And left behind.

When a senseless tragedy like this occurs, whether it’s around the world, or around the corner, it reminds us that we are only alive for a short time in the grand scheme of things and we should be prepared for the next step, the final and eternal step. If we have no hope, we end up with a void in our hearts for lives lost. All we have to hold onto are memories, which become distorted with each passing day, as we try to mentally recreate the person we once knew.

Youth is no guarantee of a long life.

Twelve of these young people were under 25 years old. At the risk of losing social media friends, I am not ashamed of proclaiming my faith and trust in my Savior Jesus Christ, and my knowledge that He has already provided me with eternal life by His death on a Cross, burial and resurrection. In fact, it’s why I’m here. To spread that message.

I can only hope and pray that what happened in western Canada last Friday will lead others to this saving knowledge. If not, they died in vain.

 Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.  — James 4:14

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