ON THE AFTERNOON OF APRIL 6, AT AN INTERSECTION IN RURAL SASKATCHEWAN, A BUS CARRYING A JUNIOR HOCKEY TEAM COLLIDED WITH A TRACTOR-TRAILER. SIXTEEN LIVES WERE LOST. AFTER UNSPEAKABLE TRAGEDY, A COMMUNITY AND COUNTRY RESPONDED
THE NIGHT before the accident, Leroy and Shirley Haugan had their son and his wife and kids over for dinner. Shirley laid out chicken wings, turkey, ham and salad, while her two grandchildren, 12-year-old Carson and nine-year-old Jackson, scooted around the living room, oblivious to the NHL game on TV.
Leroy asked Darcy, his only son, to join him for a minute on the couch. He's still not sure why. Maybe it's because the season was almost over. Darcy was the coach of the local Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League team, and his Humboldt Broncos trailed 3--1 in a best-of-seven playoff series after losing in triple overtime at home less than 24 hours earlier. Leroy knew the Broncos were headed back to Nipawin on a bus the next day, with Game 5 set for that night. Maybe he wanted to wish Darcy luck. Maybe, he would later suggest, it was fate.
The two men sat down. Leroy looked Darcy in the eyes. He didn't say anything at first, but then the words came pouring out. "My dearest Darcy," Leroy says he told his son, "I can't tell you how much joy and pride I have in the way you are living. There's not a day that goes by that I'm not proud of you."
The Haugans are a hockey family, same as all their neighbors, same as all their friends. Darcy's parents raised him and his sister, Deborah, in Peace River, Alberta, a town of 6,800, some 300 miles northwest of Edmonton. Leroy taught them to skate as soon as they could walk. He himself played hockey until age 67, earning the nickname Crazy Legs for the way he barreled down the ice. The vertical scar across his right eyebrow, courtesy of a wayward stick, was proof of his devotion to the game. He loved God, his family and the Detroit Red Wings, in that order.
Darcy had kept wearing his Red Wings jersey after it grew full of holes, and he had steadily climbed the ranks of Canada's junior leagues, earning a scholarship to Northern Michigan. After one season in Marquette, he ended up at Briercrest College in Caronport, Saskatchewan, much closer to home. He later went to Sweden to play professionally, only to crack several vertebrae. That's when he became a coach, and in 2003, he returned to Peace River. He shared an office with his father at the Kal Tire store Leroy managed, while guiding the North Peace Navigators, the local youth team, to 326 wins in 12 seasons.
In 2015 the Broncos called. They needed a coach, and they offered a bigger league, Junior A instead of Junior B, and a full-time coaching gig. Darcy was hesitant to leave his parents, but Leroy retired and he and Shirley moved to Humboldt too. Darcy's wife, Christina, became the team's office manager; Leroy its biggest fan.
As midnight drew near on that Thursday evening, Leroy prayed for his son and for the Broncos. Darcy was nervous about Nipawin. The last thing he said to his mother before he left was, "I think this might be our last game, Mum."
The Broncos left the next afternoon, shortly after lunch, their bus carrying 29 passengers—players, coaches, broadcasters and support staff. Darcy sat up front. The flat, vast, snowy expanse of the Canadian prairies unfolded out of the windows as the bus chugged north. The team passed the 125 miles to Nipawin the same way it always did, watching movies (Happy Gilmore as usual), playing poker and cracking jokes.
At about 5 p.m., their charter bus was traveling north on Highway 35. The team was almost to Nipawin, approaching an intersection known to locals as Armley Corner, as a tractor-trailer carrying peat moss headed west on Highway 335 toward the intersection. The driver of the tractor-trailer either didn't see the bus, or couldn't stop.
First responders, all local volunteers—mechanics and businesswomen and teachers—arrived quickly. They started pulling passengers from underneath the bus, and using a triage system, began to place tags near patients: green and yellow for those likely to survive, red for those in critical condition and black for the deceased. As the markers accumulated, the scope of the damage became unspeakably, unbearably clear. Almost every tag was red or black.
The team chaplain, Sean Brandow, also en route to Nipawin, arrived on the scene shortly thereafter. In the days that followed, he would try to make sense of the anguish he saw that night, to describe the way a hand attached to a lifeless body felt when he held it in his. He can't explain it, how helpless he felt. "We knew the bus had crashed," he says. "But I didn't ever think it could be that bad. It was the valley of darkness. That's the only way I can put it. Carnage."
Fifteen souls on the bus—10 players, two coaches, the driver, the play-by-play announcer and the statistician—died. They included Jaxon Joseph, the 20-year-old son of former NHL player Chris Joseph; Logan Schatz, the 20-year-old team captain; and their beloved coach, Darcy Haugan.
Emergency helicopters transported the most critically wounded to Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, 130 miles away. In Humboldt, Leroy Haugan received a call from Brandow: "Darcy didn't make it." Leroy called his daughter, whose husband, Andrew, had nearly died in a car accident eight years earlier, his injuries so extreme that he spent 76 days in the hospital and needed 29 screws and three plates and years of physical therapy to overcome a traumatic brain injury. Why, Deborah wondered, had her husband survived a horrific crash but not her brother?
The Haugan family gathered again in Humboldt, same as the night before. When Christina collected the boys to head home around midnight, Shirley said, "Leroy, pray."
"I'm not praying," he said.
That's when Carson put his arm around his grandfather. "Poppa, I'll pray," he said.
EVERY PARENT who has ever put a child on a bus to a game or to a school or to a museum could relate to the tragedy that hit Humboldt. That was especially true in Saskatchewan, a province of 1.1 million people spread across 252,000 square miles. So many boys there play hockey, and all hockey players play road games, dispatched to rival towns by ... bus.
In snowstorms, at night, on two-lane highways marked with deer crossing signs and shrouded in fog, the rides forge camaraderie. Glen Gulutzan, the Calgary Flames coach who visited the Humboldt survivors in the hospital, says he found serenity on those trips; now that he flies to games, he misses them. He didn't see danger there. Instead, he sometimes preferred his teams take those journeys early in their season, so they could bond faster.
Brayden Klimosko understands that. He played for Humboldt from 2005--06 through '07--08 and later was an assistant coach. He remembers those rides as the team's "safe place," when the Broncos felt the most together, no distractions. "Just the boys," he says. "That's what made you a hockey player. The hours you spent on that bus."
There had been tragedies before. In 1986, a junior team from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, also nicknamed the Broncos, was traveling to Regina, when its bus hit black ice and skidded off the road. Four players died, including center Scott Kruger, whose brother, a goalie named Trevor, survived the crash. Trevor can still recall the bus swerving off the road, flipping in the air, the force of the impact.
"Getting on a bus. Going to a game. That's life here," says Deborah over coffee one afternoon in Humboldt. She pauses and wipes the tears that have started to run down both cheeks. "You're traveling down these roads, there's blowing snow, and you put your child on this bus. You say, Have a great trip, but hope they get home safe. In the back of your head you're hoping that nothing happens. Right?"
ON SUNDAY, 48 hours after the crash, the citizens of Humboldt mourned. They held a vigil at the only place that felt appropriate, the Elgar Petersen Arena. Thousands gathered, spilling into the aisles, and into the nearby curling club, convention center and gymnasium.
There were therapy dogs and crisis counselors, and boxes of tissues were passed down the aisles like collection plates. Flowers ringed the team logo at center ice, and in front of the stage, pictures of the deceased were propped above floral arrangements and teddy bears.
One of the survivors, Nick Shumlanski, was in attendance, with a chipped vertebra and a bruise under his left eye. His parents happened to live less than a mile from the crash site, and he had called them from the bus, panicked, screaming into the phone. Doctors later told them it was a miracle he had survived.
The vigil started around 7:30 p.m. Had Humboldt won Game 5, the Broncos would have been playing Game 6 right there, right then. Near the end of the program, Broncos president Kevin Garinger choked out the names of the deceased, one after another. As Deborah Carpenter listened in the arena, she heard each family gasp when their loved one's name was called. She steeled herself for what was coming, but when she heard her brother's name she still couldn't help herself. "I heard my mom," she says. "I heard my dad. The boys. I just tried to tell myself: His death mattered because his life mattered."
Three days after the vigil, Klimosko, now an assistant with an Alberta junior team, sat in the same bleachers, the arena now empty. "One on Thursday, one on Friday, two on Saturday, one on Monday," he said, reciting the schedule of funerals and wakes he planned to attend in the coming days. "A group funeral for three guys in Edmonton on Tuesday that I really want to make.... "
It's like that for everyone now in Humboldt, a farming and mining town of 6,000. Once the mustard capital of the world, they grow flaxseed, canola, barley and wheat. In addition to farming, Humboldt is also known for hockey. It's the hometown of Glenn Hall, the Hall of Fame goalie who backstopped the Black Hawks to a Stanley Cup in 1961. The Broncos play Junior A hockey, a high-but-not-that-high level, where the very best will reach the major junior leagues, with a shot to make the NHL. But the majority instead seek a college scholarship.
Locals are more boosters than fans. Other than three salaried coaches and a paid office manager, everyone else, from ushers to statisticians to ticket takers, are volunteers. After Haugan took over the team in 2015, he quickly installed his changes. He wanted players to respect the history of a team that had been founded as an affiliate of the Swift Current Broncos, and won national titles in '03 and '08. He had the locker room painted green and gold (by his wife). Players had to take off their shoes before they entered, and signs with the coach's core values—CONSISTENCY, COMMITMENT, STAY HUNGRY, BE HUMBLE—adorned the walls. Small changes led to big ones. Humboldt went from 11th (of 12 teams) in his first season to fifth (and into the playoffs) the following year.
Haugan seemed to appreciate this team in particular. There was the captain, Schatz—the kid with the infectious laugh and the league's player of the month in February. And Logan Boulet, 21, a defenseman who struggled in his first season but came back in the best shape of his life last fall. Both died from the accident. Boulet had signed up to be an organ donor on his 21st birthday; his organs went to six people. Seeing that in the news, hundreds of locals became donors last week.
AS TSN broadcaster Brian Munz watched the vigil on Sunday night, he received a message from a friend: a photo of a hockey stick leaning by his front door. "Leaving it out on the porch tonight," the friend wrote. "The boys might need it ... wherever they are." A Humboldt native and former Broncos broadcaster, Munz placed a stick outside his condo in Winnipeg, then tweeted out the image his friend had sent.
By the time he woke up, he had received hundreds of messages over social media, from all over the world, from current NHL players and the Hockey Hall of Fame to members of the Canadian military stationed in Iraq. They had done the same thing. Hockey sticks lined the porches in his neighborhood. Deborah Carpenter stuck five in the snow outside her house in Red Deer, Alberta. Humboldt mayor Rob Muench, a former Broncos board member, placed three on his porch. "It's amazing," Munz says, "how a simple gesture brings everyone together."
The outpouring of support continued. A Humboldt resident set up a GoFundMe campaign, and within two weeks, the total raised for victims' families had climbed to more than $11 million, the most for such a campaign in Canadian history. Nearly 130,000 people, from at least 65 countries, had chipped in.
Neighbors made sure the Haugans' fridge was always filled, and friends from Peace River put $25,000 in a college fund for Darcy's boys. A good Samaritan laid 15 white crosses in front of Brandow's church. The chaplain planted them just outside the front door—near a hockey stick. On April 11, Dayna Brons, 24, the team's athletic therapist and the only woman on the bus, died in the hospital from the injuries she suffered in the crash. Brandow needed another cross.
WHEN THE Swift Current survivors met in 2011 for the 25-year reunion of the accident, they talked about the years since and they discovered that they shared the same pain, the same nightmares, the same flashbacks, the same survivor's remorse. Kruger, who lost his brother in the accident, says he felt most for the parents. "I don't think my mom ever got over it," he says. "She lost her will to live."
Three of Kruger's teammates, including former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, traveled to Humboldt in the wake of the crash. Kennedy wasn't sure exactly why, and then as he boarded the plane, someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was Deborah, headed to her parents' house. As they shared their stories and their scars, it dawned on Kennedy why he had to go: He had to make sure the families in Humboldt didn't make the same mistakes his team had. "We never talked about the impact, the trauma, the lives that changed forever on that bus," he says. "We know better today."
Humboldt's mayor says the city will focus on healing. Nearby cities Saskatoon and Regina sent official personnel to keep track of all the messages, to handle and organize the overwhelming response Humboldt has received. What Muench wants, what they all want, is for their town not to be defined only by the worst thing that ever happened there. He wants Humboldt to be known not just for the crash, but for how the community responded to it.
The drive to Nipawin takes about two hours. Motorists can go half an hour without seeing another house, let alone another car. For two vehicles to travel two different highways and arrive at the same intersection at the exact same moment on a random Friday ... well, what are the chances?
Almost a week after the crash, a memorial remains where the bus finally slid to a stop. The debris has been cleared, all the peat moss, the bus parts, the scattered clothes and the spilled equipment. A black mat has been laid down, and Canadians have come from all over the province to leave flowers and candles, stickers and stuffed bears. And enough hockey sticks to outfit an exceptional team.
"WE KNEW THE BUS HAD CRASHED, BUT I DIDN'T THINK IT COULD BE THAT BAD," BRANDOW SAYS. "IT WAS THE VALLEY OF DARKNESS."