As someone who has spent much of his life connected to junior hockey, including eight years as the head coach of the Humboldt Broncos, Bob Beatty has very specific insight into the tragic bus crash last Friday that killed 15 people connected to that team including 10 players and two coaches.
“It’s a nightmare,” an emotional Beatty said on Monday afternoon at Shawnigan Lake School, where he coaches the bantam prep team. “Unfortunately, it has come true for the Humboldt Broncos.”
Beatty coached the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Broncos from 1996 to 2004, winning an RBC Cup national championship in 2003. He also coached the La Ronge Ice Wolves of the SJHL, and the junior A Cowichan Valley Capitals from 2013 to 2017, but he still has a close connection to Humboldt.
“Obviously, it’s a team that’s close to my heart,” Beatty said. “I know the town well. I grew up 45 minutes from there. I lived there throughout the time I coached there.
“It’s a tight-knit, close community. It’s an extremely vibrant community with strong leadership.”
The Broncos are a vital part of Humboldt, which has a population of fewer than 6,000 people, Beatty explained.
“The Broncos are synonymous with Humboldt,” he said. “Like any junior A teams in smaller cities, they’re the lifeblood of the community, or a big part of it. They’re a rallying point for the community. They’re a conversation catalyst on coffee row. You don’t go to Humboldt or drive through Humboldt without thinking of the Broncos.”
Beatty knew Broncos head coach Darcy Haugan, who died in the bus crash, and counts the parents of defenceman Bryce Fiske, who survived with a broken jaw, as close family friends. Fiske grew up in La Ronge and played for the Ice Wolves until he was traded to Humboldt in October. Beatty also knew the parents of other Broncos players, including at least one who didn’t survive.
“All the junior teams in Western Canada — junior A, the Western Hockey League — I’m sure every single one has some connection to someone involved with the Humboldt Broncos,” Beatty said.
At least five players who have come through the Capitals organization have played on a team with someone who was on the Broncos’s bus. Another, Tate Coughlin, who played for the Caps this past season, previously played with a player who was traded away by the Broncos last summer.
Out-going Capitals head coach Brian Passmore, who like Beatty has spent countless hours riding buses as a player and coach, didn’t know anyone on the Broncos bus, but the tragedy still hit close to home for him.
“It’s unimaginable,” he said on Monday. “It was hard to even turn the TV on yesterday.”
Passmore thought back to some of his bus rides and visualized what the Broncos players were doing at the time of the crash.
“You wonder, what were they doing at the time?” he said. “Half the guys were probably resting. Some were getting their suits on.”
During his time playing pro hockey, Passmore’s teams often travelled on buses with sleeper berths, and he could occasionally hear the bus hit rumble strips on the highway shoulder. He also recalled one time when the coach came back to the sleeping area, noticed that he was still up, and asked him to sit with the bus driver to make sure he stayed awake.
Passmore’s thoughts were with the players, their families, and the people of Humboldt.
“It’s gonna take a long time for them to even overcome that,” he said. “It’s gonna be tough. It’s a smaller town than Duncan. You can imagine the community support.”
Beatty, noting that it has been 47 years since he started playing junior hockey, agreed that riding the bus is more than just a necessary part of playing hockey, but also a vital aspect of the culture.
“Think about it: how many times you put teams on a bus,” he said. “It’s hard to fathom why Friday and not countless other trips that we made that are essential in sporting competition.”
In the days since the crash, Beatty has been contacted by countless old friends and colleagues, and the conversations have inevitably gone around to riding the bus.
“All the connections have always gotten back to how many good hours teams have enjoyed spending time on the bus and the bonding experience,” he said.
The 10 players who died in the crash included one former B.C. Hockey league player: forward Jaxon Joseph, who played for the Surrey Eagles in 2015-16. As hosts of the 2012 RBC Cup tournament and a regular contender in the SJHL, the Broncos were already familiar to the rest of the national junior hockey community.
“There are no words to fully express our grief over this terrible tragedy,” BCHL commissioner John Grisdale said. “It goes without saying that the BCHL and its board of governors are in 100 per cent support of the Humboldt Broncos and the SJHL.
“We will provide whatever we can to ease their pain and help work through the days to come.”
The BCHL also encouraged fans to donate to an online fundraiser for the Broncos, which can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/funds-for-humboldt-broncos. The campaign had raised more than $7 million as of Tuesday morning.