HUMBOLDT, Saskatchewan — A hockey arena became the epicenter of grief for a small Canadian town Sunday, as friends and relatives gathered to mourn 15 people killed after a semi-trailer slammed into a bus carrying a junior hockey team in western Canada.
Fourteen people were also injured, including some critically, in a collision that left a country, its national sport and the hockey-obsessed town of Humboldt reeling.
The bus had 29 passengers, including the driver, when it crashed at about 5 p.m. Friday on Highway 35, police said. Among the dead are Broncos coach Darcy Haugan, team captain Logan Schatz and radio announcer Tyler Bieber.
Forward Jaxon Joseph, who is the son of former NHL player Chris Joseph, along with forwards Logan Hunter and Evan Thomas, and defensemen Stephen Wack, Adam Herold and Xavier Labelle were among the dead, according to family members and others. Bus driver Glen Doerksen and stats keeper Brody Hinz, who was 18, were also killed.
Herold, who would have turned 17 on Thursday, played for the Regina Pat Canadians hockey team until just weeks ago. He was sent to join the Broncos for their playoff round when the Pat Canadians’ season wrapped up, said John Smith, the Pat Canadians’ manager.
Norman Mattock, a longtime season-ticket holder, said his neighbor housed player Morgan Gobeil. The defenseman was severely injured and remains in serious but stable condition, Mattock said.
The names of all the dead and injured have not been released by police.
A vigil will be held on the hockey team’s home ice Sunday night; a makeshift stage and hundreds of chairs sit ready for the memorial.
Residents of this town of less than 6,000 have been leaving flowers, team jerseys and personal tributes on the steps of the arena’s entrance, forming a makeshift memorial. One tribute included a Kraft dinner box, which was a favorite meal of Thomas. A bouquet of pink roses adorned the box, which read “to Evan, game day special, love your billet brother and sister Colten and Shelby.”
Canadians have become mourners as they have learned more about the identities of the deceased on the bus that was carrying the Humboldt Broncos to a crucial playoff game Friday against the Nipawin Hawks.
“It’s small town anywhere. We’re devastated,” said hockey club vice president Randolph MacLean. “At the center of this, we have 15 souls who’ll never go home again. We have 29 lives that will never be the same.”
Canadian police said the truck driver, who was not hurt, was initially detained but has since been released and provided with mental health assistance. Royal Canadian Mounted Police Assistant Commissioner Curtis Zablocki said it’s too early to state a cause for the crash.
“An entire country is in shock and mourning,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. “To the entire Humboldt community: We are here for you. As neighbors, as friends and as Canadians, we grieve alongside you.”
In a tweet, President Donald Trump said he called Trudeau to offer his condolences to the families of victims.
Hassan Masri, an emergency room doctor at Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital who has done work in war-torn Syria, said the crash reminded him of an airstrike.
Photographs of the wreckage showed the twisted trailer with most of its wheels in the air and the bus on its side with its back portion destroyed. The force of the crash sent both vehicles into the ditch at the northwest corner of the intersection.
Aerial footage showed the roof of the bus peeled back. The trailer of the truck lay nearby in a shattered mess, with bags of its peat moss cargo scattered all around. The tractor part of the truck was intact, lying on its passenger side.
The tractor-trailer would have had to come to a full stop before crossing over the highway that the bus was traveling on. There is a stand of trees on the southeast corner of the intersection, limiting visibility of the approach on both roads.
Michelle Straschnitzki, who lives in Airdrie, Alberta, said her 18-year old son Ryan was transported to a hospital in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
“We talked to him, but he said he couldn’t feel his lower extremities, so I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “I am freaking out. I am so sad for all of the teammates, and I am losing my mind.”
Police said a lot of issues have to be investigated, including weather conditions at the time and any mechanical issues with the vehicles.
The tragedy brought to mind an accident in 1986, when the Swift Current Broncos team bus slid off an icy highway and crashed in late December, killing four players.
The Humboldt Broncos are a close-knit team who dyed their hair blond for the playoffs. While most of the players were from elsewhere in western Canada, they were put up by families in the small town of Humboldt.
“We’re all hurting,” said hockey arena cook Diane Sawatzky. “We’ve become like a family and try to help each other.”
Earlier in the weekend, Humboldt Mayor Rob Muench, wearing a green and yellow Broncos team jersey, hugged people as they came to the Elgar Petersen Arena in the Saskatchewan town to comfort each other and learn more.
“It’s overwhelming. It’s been tough on everybody,” Muench said. “We’re a small community. Some of those kids have been on the team for a number of years. A lot grew up in the community, and everybody knows each other.”
Multiple crisis workers were assisting relatives and friends.
The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League is a junior “A” hockey league under Hockey Canada, which is part of the Canadian Junior Hockey League. It’s open to North American-born players between the ages of 16 and 20.