Canada reels: 15 die when truck, hockey team bus collide

At least 15 people are dead after a crash between a tractor-trailer and a bus carrying a Canadian junior hockey league team, a tragedy that struck at the heart of a tightknit city in rural Saskatchewan and immediately echoed through the hockey world and beyond.

The deadly crash occurred around 5 p.m. Friday on Highway 35 in Saskatchewan, about 150 miles northeast of Saskatoon, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The bus was carrying members of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey league team, on their way to the town of Nipawin for a playoff game.

On Saturday, police confirmed there were 29 people on the Humboldt Broncos team bus, including the driver, at the time of the crash. The death toll stood at 15 late Saturday afternoon, police said, while 14 people remained injured.

Broncos president Kevin Garinger described “an incomprehensible situation” at a news conference Saturday afternoon, where several of the speakers choked back tears.

“We are heartbroken and completely devastated by the tragedy that occurred yesterday,” Garinger said. “We will never forget April 6, 2018, and we will never forget the members of our Broncos family who were taken from us and who were injured.”

Among those killed were the team’s head coach, team captain and radio announcer, according to the Associated Press. The Washington Post could not immediately independently confirm the deaths, and Canadian authorities have said they are not yet ready to release the identities of the victims.

Police said it was too early to discuss the cause of the crash, and that an investigation was underway. The driver of the tractor-trailer was not injured and was not in custody, according to the RCMP.

Bill Chow, the president of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, to which the Broncos belong, had to stop mid-sentence to compose himself as he tried to answer reporters’ questions Saturday.

“I don’t have a lot to say other than— …” Chow said, pausing for several seconds as he began to cry. ” … other than the worst nightmare has happened.”

The Broncos roster lists 24 players ranging in age from 16 to 21 years old, as well as three coaches. The junior league team is based in Humboldt, a small city about 120 miles south of Nipawin with a population of nearly 6,000 people.

As word spread of the crash Friday night, dozens of Humboldt residents gathered at the Broncos’ home ice rink to wait for news and take solace in the community, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix reported.

Images from the arena showed adults and children clustered around tables, among tissue boxes and disposable cups. Some appeared dazed, some with eyes red from crying.

“There’s people, just sitting in the stands, stunned. They didn’t know what to do,” Humboldt Mayor Rob Muench told the newspaper. “It’s a tragedy not only for Humboldt, but for hockey all over [Canada]. A number of the players were from communities in surrounding provinces and across the country. It is a very, very hard thing to take.”

Muench said Saturday he had received condolences from all over the world. He spoke of the culture of Canadian junior league hockey — especially of the frequent long bus trips from game to game — that was familiar to so many people in Humboldt and beyond.

“This tragedy has hit a number of people — not just us but I think everybody can relate to this experience,” Muench said. “Throughout Canada, we see teams going out into the Canadian winters on buses all the time. It’s always a thought [in your mind] about what could happen. Unfortunately, this happened here in Humboldt. There is no playbook on what to do in cases like this.”

Michelle Straschnitzki told the Associated Press her 18-year-old son Ryan was among the Broncos players taken to a hospital in Saskatoon.

“We talked to him, but he said he couldn’t feel his lower extremities so I don’t know what’s going on,” Straschnitzki told the AP. “I am freaking out. I am so sad for all of the teammates, and I am losing my mind.”

Several professional hockey teams and world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Trump, also offered condolences.

The Broncos had been scheduled to play against the Nipawin Hawks in the semifinals of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs. The Hawks announced Friday night that the game had been canceled.

A GoFundMe account set up to help Broncos families with expenses raised more than $2.5 million in less than a day.

On Friday night, more than a hundred people packed the Apostolic Church in Nipawin, where the Broncos had been scheduled to play, awaiting word from the crash scene, the Globe and Mail reported.

“Lots of them are waiting for information,” pastor Jordan Gadsby told the newspaper. “Some of the families have gotten information and have gone to be with their kids. Some of them are waiting to hear if their kids are alive.”

Tonight’s game is Cancelled. The accident being talked about involved Humboldt team bus. We ask during this time that you don’t send messages. When more information is given we will update.

Posted by Nipawin Hawks on Friday, April 6, 2018

Nipawin Hawks president Darren Opp told local reporters that members of his team were also standing by waiting to help, and that he had received at least 50 phone calls offering the same.

“There’s uncles and moms and dads waiting to hear whether their sons and nephews are okay,” he said. “It’s terrible. It’s absolutely terrible.”

For some in the region, the crash brought back memories of a similar bus crash that killed four members of another junior hockey league team from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, in 1986.

Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHL player who survived the Swift Current crash more than three decades ago, urged people to refrain from sharing information online that wasn’t confirmed.

“Social media wasn’t around when we had our accident, but I just remember the need (for information),” Kennedy told the Calgary Herald. “There’s parents, there’s fans, there’s friends – all they hear that there’s a bus crash and there’s fatalities, not knowing if it’s their kid, not knowing who it is.”

Sarah Larimer contributed to this report, which has been updated.

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