Six and a half decades of writing sports and news have not shielded this old journalist from the grievous emotions of tragedy.
Like millions of others from coast to coast and beyond, I was continually wiping tears from my eyes. I couldn’t help it.
As I learned more and more about the horrific highway crash that occurred Friday in Saskatchewan, wiping out much of a junior hockey club on the way to a playoff game, many thoughts passed through my mind.
I wasn’t alone. The crash involving the team’s bus and a tractor trailer plunged the entire hockey world into mourning.
Listening to commentaries on television made the hurt even harder to digest and understand. It was hitting at the game we all love.
Said one Humboldt hockey father: “You expect your kid to come home from his hockey game — but he didn’t.”
How can that not ignite tears?
Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, fighting back tears, was talking from the heart as he spoke to the media: “Your families are more important than the hockey. Be happy to be able to put your arms around your children and hug them.”
How could that not pull at the heart-strings?
Words of emotion flowed like rivers on TV and radio, on Facebook, Twitter and other social media avenues. Hockey, basketball and baseball games at all levels were preceded by moments of silence.
Clearly, a time to grieve.
Closer to home, it had plenty of meaning. In Pictou County especially, it was a time to reflect because Pictonians know sports tragedies.
I couldn’t help but think of two specific highway accidents that struck Pictou County teams.
The first occurred when I was 15, less than a year before I started my newspaper career at the New Glasgow News. Memories of that fateful night remain vivid in my mind even though it was so long ago.
It was New Year’s night in 1954. My father and I were at Stellarton Memorial Rink awaiting the start of an APC Senior Hockey League game between the hometown Royals and Antigonish Bulldogs.
The game was never played.
Almost as though it had been a week or so ago, I can recall where I was sitting in the stands, in an almost-filled arena. We sat there waiting, waiting and waiting. There was no sign of the teams coming out onto the ice.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, word began to spread through the crowd.
There had been an accident on the highway between New Glasgow and Antigonish. Three Royals players who had been commuting to games that season were travelling on what was an ice-covered road that night. Near Brierly Brook, their car skidded on the ice and crashed into an oncoming truck.
Forward Billy MacDougall and defenceman Eddie Murrin escaped serious injuries. But 27-year-old goaltender Gummie Gilfoy, a veteran of senior competition who had been playing well for Stellarton, died in the crash.
Shock spread through Memorial Rink. The game, naturally, was postponed.
I was just 15, but I learned something about life that night — that even our favourite athletes can be victims to tragedy. It was a lesson I never forgot.
The second crash involving local hockey players happened three decades later, on a dark and rain-covered highway between Amherst and Truro. The county’s AAA bantam club — involving players 13 and 14 years old — was returning from Miramichi in vans.
Ahead, in the dark, a tractor trailer was stalled on the highway. One of the county-bound vehicles slammed into the truck.
Three young teenagers and a hockey mom died.
Players Donald Gladwin, Shawn McKay and John Allan MacDonald, as well as Shawn’s mother Marie McKay, were the victims.
The second van, that came along moments later, was driven by the team’s young coach, Ron Turnbull. Yes, the same Ron Turnbull whose daughter Blayre was a standout member of this year’s Canadian women’s hockey team at the Olympics in South Korea.
Imagine the horror Ron must have felt as he approached the wreckage. It’s the kind of thing that would last a lifetime and more.
For him, that bantam team is still a personal part of his life. His son Brent previously played for the club and for St. FX this past winter.
How do teams recover from tragedies?
Well, for the Stellarton Royals in 1953-54, as well as the AAA bantams, positive things did happen.
The Royals were being coached that long-ago season by the astute Leo Fahey, who went out and found a very capable goaltender in veteran Greg Floyd. It was a smart move. The team went on from there to win the Nova Scotia senior championship.
The Pictou County bantams, of course, have never been out of the limelight.
The year immediately following the accident, Turnbull and a few others organized an annual bantam tournament in the team’s memory and the event remains an important date each winter.
Pictonians know that the impact of this latest and very big tragedy will never be forgotten in the Humboldt area, in Saskatchewan, in Canada, in the hockey world.
Humboldt mayor Ron Muench put it in emotional terms: “We’ll get through this collectively. We’ll get through this one prayer at a time, one person at a time, one hug at a time, one cry at a time. We’ll get through this together.”
See how emotional the comments have been?
As I browsed social media sources through the weekend, I came across a touching tweet written by the county’s hockey Olympian, Blayre Turnbull. I thought her words would be a good way to conclude my own feelings, a column that wasn’t easy to write.
Blayre’s comment: “My heart breaks for this team and their loved ones. I can’t even begin to fathom what they must be feeling. Please keep them in your thoughts.”
We will, Blayre, we will.