HUMBOLDT: A shocked Canada was in mourning Saturday after a bus carrying a junior ice hockey team collided with a semi-trailer truck in Saskatchewan province, killing 15 people.
In a country where love of the sport is almost a religion, the crash sparked an outpouring of grief among players and fans, while national political leaders and the head of the National Hockey League expressed their sympathies.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which said determining the cause of the accident would require some time, did not say how many of the victims were players or coaches of the Humboldt Broncos team, which hails from a town of 6,000 people.
Police said that there had been 29 people on board the team bus, including the driver, and 14 were injured, including some in critical condition.
“An entire country is in shock and mourning today,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.
“We are heartbroken knowing many of those we lost had their entire lives in front of them… This is every parent’s worst nightmare. No one should ever have to see their child leave to play the sport they love and never come back.”
Tom Straschnitzki told CBC News that his son Ryan was among the injured.
“He remembers he was in the middle of the bus and then he remembers waking up when the paramedics took him off the bus,” said Straschnitzki, whose son suffered a severe back injury.
The team comprises 24 players, all from Canada, with the youngest aged 16 and the oldest 21.
The crash happened around 5:00 pm (2300 GMT) Friday on Highway 335 about 28 kilometres (17 miles) north of the town of Tisdale, a trading center in an overwhelmingly agricultural region of the western province.
The truck was heading west and the bus north when they collided, said Curtis Zablocki, Assistant Commissioner of the RCMP in Saskatchewan.
The driver, who was unscathed, was allowed to go free while the RCMP investigate the cause of the crash, Zablocki told reporters.
Broncos coach Darcy Haugan was killed in the accident, his sister later told CBC television, though the identity of other victims has not yet been revealed.
Also reported dead by CBC were team captain Logan Schatz and 16-year-old Adam Herold, who was one of the youngest players on the team.
The team was heading north for a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks.
The Saskatchewan league is a feeder system for higher levels of hockey, with many graduating to play at US and Canadian colleges and major junior league level, while some go on to the professional National Hockey League (NHL).
– ‘Our boys’ –
Victims’ families, friends and supporters of the team gathered at a Nipawin church for information and support.
“Last night can only be described as the longest, worst and most tragic night of my career,” Saskatoon hospital doctor Hassan McMasri said in a Facebook post.
“The images can’t be unseen or forgotten, the stories can’t be unheard or ignored.”
US President Donald Trump said he called Trudeau “to pay my highest respect and condolences to the families of the terrible Humboldt Team tragedy.”
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe retweeted a photo of one player who survived, Derek Patter, lying side-by-side with two other injured players on hospital beds, clasping each other’s hands in support. One of the young men appeared to be wearing a neck brace.
“Saskatchewan, these are our boys,” said Moe, the province’s top politician.
– ‘My heart is in Humboldt’ –
The accident left its mark across the entire North American hockey community.
Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock fought back tears as he expressed his feelings for the victims and their families in his home province of Saskatchewan.
“I grew up right there in Saskatoon,” Babcock said. “I can’t even imagine being a parent or the wife or the kids at home and going through something like this.”
Former Detroit Red Wing player Sheldon Kennedy, who survived another junior hockey team bus crash in Saskatchewan in 1986, said: “You are losing your teammates and your friend. You are losing your son and I think those have long-lasting impacts.”
Fans and players alike shared condolences using the hashtag #PrayforHumboldt, and some hotels offered free lodging for family members.
A GoFundMe campaign for affected players and their families had raised more than $1.1 million, fast approaching its $2 million goal by Saturday afternoon.
“2night my heart is in Humboldt,” tweeted Anaheim Ducks NHL defenseman Steven Oleksy.
In January 2008, seven basketball players on a youth team and their coach’s wife died in New Brunswick when a semi-trailer clipped their van at night.