By Alex Cooper, special to the Review
Revelstoke Grizzlies head coach Ryan Parent knows the lonely roads of Saskatchewan all too well. A native of North Battleford, he grew up playing hockey there and later coached in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
He’s been on the bus as it travelled on Highway 35 near Tisdale, where a tractor-trailer crashed into the one carrying the Humboldt Broncos Junior A hockey team on Friday, Apr. 6, leaving 15 people dead and 14 injured, including several in critical condition.
Parent and the Revelstoke Grizzlies learned of the terrible tragedy while in the dressing room after losing game six of the KIJHL finals to the Kimberley Dynamiters. The news hit very close to home to the team, who were all too familiar with the long journeys associated with junior hockey.
“It made our loss look pretty small all of a sudden,” said Darren Komonoski, the Revelstoke Grizzlies assistant coach and a native of Humboldt. “Knowing that community and how passionate it is about hockey and how they treat sports in general. Everyone is passionate about their sports, and they really engage in the team itself and everything it meant to the community.”
The collision took place Friday afternoon, as the Broncos were on their way to Nipawin to play a must-win game five. Down 3-1 in the series, they were surely focused on the task that lay ahead of them that night and the goal of extending the series and keeping their dreams of a league title alive. Instead, their season ended in a nightmare.
“You put yourself in the shoes of those people, and you’re going it could just as easily be us,” said Parent. “And you think about the families of those players and knowing the families of our players and your own family, and it’s just devastating.
“This is not going away. This is something those people will live with the rest of their lives.”
The Grizzlies have several connections to the Broncos. Parent was friends with Broncos head coach Darcy Haugan and knows one of the surviving players. Komonoski grew up in Humboldt and played in the SJHL. Zane Avery, who was traded to Grand Forks from Revelstoke earlier this season, was a member of the Broncos when the season started.
Komonoski, who played Midget hockey in Humboldt and part of one season for the Broncos, still has friends and family in the community. His parents live there and his family owns a farm near town. He is also friends with a relative of one of the surviving players.
“Two of my close friends still reside in Humboldt. In the rural area I know a lot of the farmers in that area and Humboldt is a big part of their life,” Komonoski said. “We’ve had Humboldt in our family for generations and it will take a lot to heal.”
In Revelstoke, a community where sports teams and other youth groups hit the road and travel arguably the most dangerous stretches of highways in the country every weekend, the tragedy has resonated with many.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the Humboldt Broncos and the families/players/coaches. #prayforhumboldt
— Revelstoke Grizzlies (@RevelstokeGriz1) April 7, 2018
“Revelstoke, like any small town in Canada, is passionate about hockey and passionate about their players,” said Mayor Mark McKee during Tuesday’s council meeting. “This really hits home to a lot of communities across the country and especially one like ours. Our thoughts and prayers are with all the families.”
For the junior hockey community, the crash has had a particularly high impact.
The sport at that level is known for its long bus journeys, with teams returning home from games late at night.
The Grizzlies have one of the worst road schedules of any team in the KIJHL, going as far as 100 Mile House five hours away on road trips, and having to travel the road through Three Valley Gap every time they do.
“It hits close to home because we were on the bus for more than 35 trips this year,” said Parent. “It’s just awful. You know there’s always some risk, but you expect the bus to be a safe place and almost a part of your dressing room.”
Parent said they think about the risk all the time. In recent years, the team has used its beer garden money to charter a bus out of Kelowna, meaning they take a newer and safer bus on the road. It costs more, but it also means they get a new bus driver when returning home from away games rather than having the same driver take them there and back – a long, tiring day for anyone.
“The benefits of having that bus – we went to Kimberley and they had a fresh driver to take us from Kimberley post game,” said Parent. “It becomes safer.”
Parent thanked the team’s two bus drivers, Donnie Watt and Glen Richardson, for delivering the team safely to and from games.
He said Haugan was a great guy who loved working with his players. “My dealings with him have been open and honest and fantastic,” he said. “I had the opportunity to spend some time with him at recruiting events. He’s a good man.”
Parent declined to name the Broncos player he knew, but said he had been in touch to express his support. “You put yourself in the same position and you’ve just lost 15 of your teammates,” he said. “What people seldom think to understand is those aren’t just teammates, those are family members.