The eyes of Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock blinked back tears Saturday as he tried to express his sorrow for the victims of the Canadian junior hockey team who were killed or injured in a crash Friday night.
Canadian police said early Saturday that 14 people were killed and 14 people were injured after a transport truck collided with a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos in the province of Saskatchewan.
Humboldt head coach Darcy Haugan, who was in his third season with the Broncos and 19th year as a coach, was among those who died in the tragic accident, his wife Christina George-Haugan confirmed.
“I prepared to talk to you so I won’t get emotional. I grew up right there in Saskatoon, it’s just down the road,” Babcock told reporters Saturday morning. “My buddy’s kid played there. I talked to him. … As the calls were coming in and they were talking about all the kids they’ve coached over the years that are playing on that team, I can’t even imagine being a parent or the wife or the kids at home and going through something like this.
“Our hearts … the hockey world’s an unbelievable world. You can’t make up for loss. You just can’t. It’s got to rip the heart out of your chest. We pray for those families and think about them, and I don’t know what else you say. Horrific, horrific accident. Tough day.”
Babcock’s words seemed to echo those from around the league and all of sports Saturday.
“Our thoughts are with the players, families, coaches, team management and all those throughout the community who have been affected by the tragedy involving the Humboldt Broncos hockey team,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “The NHL mourns the passing of those who perished and offers strength and comfort to those injured while traveling to play and be part of a game they all love.”
The Broncos were traveling to Game 5 of their Canalta Cup semifinal playoff series Friday night in Nipawin. The team plays in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League — a Junior “A” hockey league open to North American-born players between ages of 16-20.
The crash occurred on Highway 35 in Saskatchewan, approximately 105 miles into the 125-mile trip to Nipawin’s arena.
“In Saskatchewan, every community is fairly small, so everybody knows everybody,” Maple Leafs winger Patrick Marleau said. “And we try and look out for each other.”
Humboldt, which began play in 1970, has missed the playoffs just once since 1980 season — in the 2015-16 season — and have had eight alums reach the NHL.
“Our hearts go out to the players and their families of the Humboldt Broncos,” Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said after Friday night’s game. “… That overrides anything that a hockey game had. It’s a tough situation for everybody in Saskatchewan and we feel for them.”
This isn’t the first major junior ice hockey crash in Canada. On Dec. 30, 1986, a bus carrying the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League — a junior ice hockey league — hit a patch of black ice on the Saskatchewan highway and flipped, killing four members of the team. Two future NHL players — Joe Sakic and Sheldon Kennedy — survived that crash.