Two years ago today, the Humboldt Broncos’ bus crashed.
Sixteen lives were lost but so many more were forever altered.
It was in the aftermath of that catastrophe, I wrote a little something not only on the Broncos’ tragedy, but the passing of Jonathan Pitre and how out of so much darkness and despair we valiantly try to find some light and hope.
Which is an endeavour that is ongoing today for many in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and so much death and darkness the world over.
This first appeared as part of the introduction in the book Everyday Hockey Heroes: Inspiring Stories On and Off the Ice, by Jim Lang and myself, which was released in the fall of 2018. It is reprinted here with permission of Simon & Schuster Canada.
“Who’s gonna be the hero?”
If you’ve ever played hockey, odds are you have heard that line before. On the bench, in the third period, of a tense, taut tie game. Or maybe in those anxious moments just before the beginning of sudden-death overtime.
“Who wants to be the hero?”
When you’re asked to put your name on a book titled Everyday Hockey Heroes, it does make you pause and think a little about what it takes to be a hero, to be heroic. And what exactly is a hockey hero anyway?
It could be the player who gets the game-winning goal. There are few feelings in the game that rival that incredible rush of energy and excitement. I mean, let’s be honest. Who doesn’t love a little adulation and adoration, to be put up on a pedestal? To be the hero.
As I got to thinking about heroes and hockey, it struck me that while there may not be many things as exhilarating as scoring the game-winning goal, does that action really qualify as heroic? A truly heroic act should not be so fleeting as a game-winning goal. It should have a deeper meaning or a greater sense of purpose than a random act in a random game.
When I was getting ready to write this introduction in early April 2018, I was pondering just that, trying to figure out the whole hero thing as it applies to hockey and the title of this book. Then I received some inspiration. Not welcome inspiration, mind you. But inspiration nonetheless.
Now, you may or may not immediately recognize April 6, 2018, as a particularly good or bad day in your life, but let me tell you why it was such a sad and tragic one in the hockey world. That morning we woke up to the heartbreaking news Jonathan Pitre had passed away. He was just seventeen.
If you’re not familiar with Jonathan Pitre, his story first came to prominence in Canada in 2014 when the Ottawa Citizen wrote a story about a hockey-loving teenager from Russell, Ontario, who had a rare but excruciatingly painful genetic skin condition known as epidermolysis bullosa (EB). Those born with EB, known as “Butterfly Children” because their skin is as fragile as a butterfly’s wings, suffer painful blisters all over their bodies. There’s currently no cure, and depending on the severity of the condition, EB can be fatal.
The moment we got to know Jonathan Pitre, he became our hero. He loved sports, especially hockey and his favourite team was the Ottawa Senators, who embraced him as one of their own. He got to be an NHL scout for a day and spent time with the Senators’ management and players. He effectively became an adopted member of the team and a truly beloved member of the NHL community.
In 2015, The Sports Network (TSN) produced and aired The Butterfly Child, a touching yet difficult-to-watch documentary about Jonathan’s battle with EB. His story went viral. The last time I checked, the YouTube video had close to twelve million views. The video—if you haven’t seen it, you really should take the time—introduced the world to a very special boy and his mother, Tina Boileau, whose love and unfailing dedication in caring for Jonathan most certainly qualifies her for some form of sainthood, to say nothing of her own heroism. Jonathan was a true inspiration, who, in the face of second-by-second, minute-by-minute suffering, somehow managed to rise above everything and be cheerful and optimistic, a shining light of life. An example in the art of forging ahead no matter the obstacles, he was wise and philosophical, but also funny and warm, and all of that at such a tender age.
“It’s always that battle between pain and not,” Jonathan said.
He may have been known as the Butterfly Child, but as he so plainly told us, he had “the heart of a warrior.” Indeed he did. Every day, just trying to live was a battle for him, but he was still dedicated to a greater cause—raising awareness and funds for EB.
There’s your hero. There’s heroism.
All of which made the news of his passing so sad, though it was also hard not to allow that Jonathan’s suffering was over, and perhaps he had, finally, found some peace.
That was how Friday, April 6, began. There was no way of knowing how wretchedly tragic it would end.
That same Friday, in the late afternoon–early evening hours, on northbound Highway 35 just north of Tisdale, Saskatchewan, the bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos Junior A team of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League—heading to Nipawin for game 5 of their league playoff series—and a semi tractor trailer truck travelling westbound collided. The resulting carnage at the prairie highway intersection was unimaginable.
As soon as the news of the crash filtered out that evening, we knew it would be bad. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police indicated fairly early that there were fatalities. As we waited for more details to emerge, we were reminded of December 30, 1986, when four members of the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos died when their bus hit black ice and overturned, and of January 12, 2008, when a van carrying a boys’ high school basketball team in Bathurst, New Brunswick, crashed in wintry road conditions, killing seven students and the wife of the team’s head coach. How could this happen again?
Friday night gave way to the wee hours of Saturday morning, and we learned that the Humboldt Broncos’ bus crash was even worse than we’d thought. Fourteen of twenty-nine on the bus had perished. Within a week, two more succumbed to their injuries.
So many young lives ended. So many more forever altered.
It’s difficult to conceive of a tragedy that could shred the very fabric of Canadian life the way a fatal bus crash of a junior hockey team could. It was an assault, an affront, to the things the Canadian hockey culture holds near and dear. For many Canadians, hockey is a way of life. It’s in our hearts, our blood, our soul.
A hockey team is a family.
In Canada’s hockey heartland, in Saskatchewan, in places named Humboldt, Nipawin, Estevan, the Battlefords, Weyburn, Melfort, Melville, Kindersley, and Wilcox, the Junior A teams are extensions of the communities. The players could be locals; they could be from far and wide. The owners, the executives, the management, the coaches, the trainers, the players, the billet families, the sponsors, the media, the fans, the townspeople—they are, in a sense, all one.
We in the hockey community are, in that same sense, all one, too, an extended family of sorts, especially when tough times hit, when tragedy strikes and we don’t have to squint too hard to see how easily we could be in walking in someone else’s shoes. For us, there’s supposed to be a certain sanctity and safety on a team bus. It’s where friendships and families are forged, not where they come to a tragic end. Yet on that fateful night, they did. The pain of the Humboldt tragedy transcended that little prairie community because hockey people—Canadians all across the vast land, in small communities and big cities, and in the NHL and every hockey league below it—know what it’s like to have your children on a bus, to chase their hockey dreams. So to see such a special tradition go horribly wrong on such a massive scale, well, no matter how far away from Humboldt you may find yourself, it hits close to home. Hits you hard.
Sleep, or any kind of peace, was difficult to come by that Friday night in April. It’s why I lay there awake, tossing and turning, unable to stop thinking of the courageous Jonathan Pitre and the sorrow his mom, Tina, must have been feeling, unable to shake the image of the Humboldt Broncos’ bus crash, unable to stop thinking about all those young lives snuffed out and their grief-stricken family members experiencing such incredible loss but still very much alive, left to pick up the pieces of lives forever altered if not shattered.
After I finally did fall asleep for a few hours, I woke up the next morning and started looking for a little perspective and, damn, there it was: the bright light of inspiration among all that darkness.
If you allow yourself, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by what I sometimes refer to as the “infinite sadness” in life, but that’s where our heroes come in—those who in the face of terrible adversity strive for a better life, not just for themselves, but for others, too.
Jonathan Pitre, of course, understood this better than anyone. When asked if he thought about the future and the reality that EB sufferers often don’t live past thirty, Jonathan replied that he had, but he pushed it aside.
“Yes, I thought about it for sure,” he said. “I mean, how can’t you? It’s a reality. I’m here. I’m going to go step by step, day by day. You never know what’s going to happen. I could live to be one hundred. You can’t know. But I know I’m not going to stop anytime soon. I’m going to keep going.”
It’s amazing to me that at the age of fourteen, Jonathan was as wise as the great philosophers and emperors of ancient Greece and Rome.
I often think of the Latin phrase memento mori, which translates to “Remember you must die.” Far from being morbid, memento mori is the practice of taking the time to reflect on your own mortality so that you live life to the fullest. The great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose meditations are the foundation of Stoic philosophy, simply put it this way: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Modern-day Stoics say, “Death doesn’t make life pointless but rather purposeful.”
We see this all the time when tragedy strikes. What starts as darkness, ends as light.
After the initial shock, horror, and grief of the Humboldt Broncos’ bus crash, came an outpouring of care, generosity, and a truer sense of community. From the first responders, the passersby, and the hospital staff, who did whatever possible to help, to the grief-stricken families, who told the stories of their departed children, paying tribute to their lives, not their deaths, we saw strength and courage everywhere. We tried to do the same, as best we could. In the first week after the accident, upwards of $11 million were earmarked for Humboldt and the Broncos. A simple symbolic gesture of leaving a hockey stick out at the front door and the porch light on—Sticks Out for Humboldt—went viral. From throughout NHL to the little hamlets across the country and beyond, all these individual acknowledgments created an enormous swell of compassion and hope.
We Are All Broncos.
We were two years ago; we are now; we will be always.
From EVERYDAY HOCKEY HEROES by Bob McKenzie and Jim Lang. Copyright © 2018 by Bob McKenzie and Jim Lang. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Canada, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. EVERYDAY HOCKEY HEROES, VOLUME 2 will be available October 27, 2020