Cruising across what felt like arctic tundra somewhere between the North Pole and Ottawa, Ontario, breath turned to vapor off the lips of junior hockey players as they huddled closely with one another. They’d scavenged what blankets and pillowcases they could find from their backpacks and travel bags as their frozen, 45-foot chariot rumbled into the night.
The team’s coaches sat in the rear of the bus, muttering — cursing — while trying to sleep. The head coach was barely visible through the opening in his cinched hood, his nose the only exposed part of his scowling face.
It was cold. They were tired. And they weren’t nearly close enough to their destination.
But a broken heater was much easier to mend than a broken heart.
The horrific scene out of Tisdale, Saskatchewan, Canada, that has been beamed to millions of people for the past 24-plus hours hits close to home for many of those millions — and many with ties to our small corner of the world.
During the eight years the Lewiston Maineiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League called this community home, they were saddled with one of the worst road schedules in the league.
It wasn’t their fault, of course — Lewiston was the lone American outpost in a Canadian league that stretched at its greatest distance from Northwest Quebec Province to Newfoundland.
For eight years, dozens of Maineiacs players, coaches and support staff criss-crossed the Eastern time zone in the name of hockey, hoping to catch the eyes of scouts with a dream of making the leap, eventually, to professional hockey.
And they did so on a bus, just like that ridden this weekend by the Humboldt Broncos, who were en route to a game in Nipawin, Saskatchewan, when the team’s bus was broadsided by a semi-trailer on Friday, killing 15 people and injuring 14 more.
An original Maineiac — and the toughest ever to slip on the sweater — Sheldon Wenzel was emotional Saturday when he heard the news.
“I spent more than half my life riding buses, going to rinks to play the game that a lot of young athletes love,” Wenzel wrote on Facebook. “For this to happen is so devastating … may the young souls who lost their lives rest in peace.”
Wenzel was on that frozen bus in the winter of 2004. He shivered along with his teammates.
But he survived.
The Maineiacs all survived their bus trips. And there were a lot of them. The team’s closest trip was a 200-mile, one-way trek to Drummondville, Quebec. Victoriaville at 210 miles, and Quebec City at 250 were next.
But the schedule also included Sydney, Nova Scotia, the team’s longest one-way trip at 660 miles, and Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, which sits 622 miles in the opposite direction. On a quick look back at a typical season of travel, the Maineiacs, accounting for combined trips and three-games-in-three-nights weekends, traveled between 15,000 and 20,000 miles per season. Over eight seasons, that’s far more than 100,000 miles of bus travel.
And that’s not to say the team didn’t have a few close calls.
On one trip to Nova Scotia in 2008, for example, the team’s driver had a medical issue while at full speed on a highway. An alert coach sprung to his feet, secured the wheel, wrestled his way toward the brake and eased the bus onto the shoulder.
On other trips, almost always at night, the bus collided with a bevy of small animals, and even a moose or two.
“Of my 7 years working in hockey, and traveling thousands of miles to games, I was lucky to only have a couple minor incidents,” wrote former Maineiacs equipment manager Matt Flaherty. “Nothing compared to what this team and the families are having to cope with. It’s a tough day for the hockey family.”
And ultimately, that’s why this tragedy hits so close to home for so many people across the world. Hockey is family.
The sport lends itself to familial relationships. That bond is stronger in the junior hockey model, too, where families often entrust the care of their children to strangers as the players chase the dream of playing professional hockey.
The players themselves form bonds of friendship and camaraderie that is as strong as any bond formed in any other team sport. The sport is a fraternity. Equipment managers, athletic therapists, coaches, players, front-office personnel, it doesn’t matter.
And many of those bonds are formed on long bus rides.
“Away from billet families, the rink, school and the public eye, the players are able to be themselves as they roll through rural outposts and prairies forming the lifelong friendships that this way of life provides,” former Maineiacs front office executive Rob Mainville wrote.
Nearly seven years removed from the Maineiacs’ final turn around the ice at the Colisee in Lewiston, the bond between the cities here and the sport of hockey is as strong as ever. The memories of that team are still alive.
And that connection is why so many in that extended family mourn this weekend. We mourn for the families who lost loved ones. We mourn for those who survived, who are now left to wonder why they were spared. We mourn for the Humboldt program, for its league. We mourn because we are family, hockey-blood-relatives.
We mourn because this could have happened here, and we know it.
We mourn, but we will persevere.
Even broken hearts will heal, when supported by the love of a family, and beyond blood, there is no greater family bond than that of the hockey community.