By Ray Burns
Mt. WILLIAM — The thread of hockey is firmly woven into the fabric of Canadian life — pull a string here and it’s felt there, the heartache of one is shared by all.
So, on a night when the Pictou County Wellness Centre usually hosts hundreds of fans for a Jr. A Crushers game, it played host to a hockey gathering of a more sombre sort.
Hockey players, coaches, officials, fans and the general public crowded the Wellness Centre entrance plaza to show support for those affected by the Humboldt Broncos bus crash tragedy in Saskatchewan that claimed the lives of 16 and injured 12 others.
This county is no stranger to hockey heartbreak. In 1984 three Bantam AAA players: John Allan MacDonald, Donald Gladwin, and Shawn McKay, along with his mother Lee Marie McKay, were killed near Amherst when their van collided with a stalled tractor-trailer.
Echoes of that tragedy were recalled with the crash in Saskatchewan.
Current Bantam AAA player Landon MacDonald, of Little Harbour, said the impact of the Broncos tragedy made him want to do what he could.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “It’s good to see the people showing support all across the country.”
Dylan Kontuk, a Bantam AA player from Alma, said events like the vigil definitely have their place in the healing process.
“It’s important to show the families that everyone’s with them in their struggle.”
Pictou County Scotians Junior B players Jacob Pentz and Matt Murray were there with their hockey sweaters on, ‘Broncos’ across their backs instead of their names.
“It hits close to home for the hockey community around here,” Pentz, a Trenton resident, said. “In Junior we understand it a bit more being on the bus all the time.”
Murray, from New Glasgow, agreed with his teammate. “We’re travelling on the buses all the time. It’s a safe place, no one thinks about this happening. This (the vigil) is all about support.”
The Pictou County event was pulled together under the organization of Joanne Reynolds, Carol Houston and Leanne Burrows. It included music, a poem, words of togetherness and strength.
Another facet of the outpouring of support for the Broncos that has come from across the nation and the NHL is a crowdfunding campaign to the support the team and families has raised approximately $11 million.
Houston said before the event that there was an overwhelming response of people looking to help, whether it was helping with the books of condolences, or signing the Nova Scotia flags, or any of the many other jobs to be done in just the 48 hours they had to pull the vigil together.
This tragedy shows just how linked we all are, she said.
“I never even heard of Humboldt until this. But we know them, we know what it’s like to get on buses week in and week out.”
Houston said she hoped that the support here, and elsewhere, will add a tiny sliver of light in the darkness.
“In the face of tragedy we can use some good news.. Hopefully, some good will come of it.”
Junior A Crushers hockey billet mom Yvonne McChesney told the large crowd of how she doesn’t sleep until her players are home safely after a road game.
“You become their mom away from home…You worry about their well being.”
Her job as a 9-1-1 dispatcher gives her a special viewpoint on this type of tragedy, McChesney said, adding that everyone is linked at times like this. “You don’t have to be family to be family.”
Jr. A Crushers head coach Doug Doull said his initial reaction when he heard of the crash was from a hockey perspective, at that time he had no idea how severe it was. The next morning, when he heard the details, his reaction was much more visceral.
“As a coach, Friday night I went to bed thinking about how this would affect their playoffs. I woke up thinking as a father and, like all of us here, I broke down.”
Former Crushers goalie Luc Melanson said there hasn’t been a second when he hasn’t been thinking of the Broncos.
“I can’t even imagine what they’re going through.”
When he thinks of his own teammates from over the years, and their bus trips, it hits even harder.
“The thought of that happening to them destroys me. The bus is where a lot of that team bonding takes place. It feels safe, comfortable, a second home. Seeing this overwhelming support is great. I’m proud to say I played here but I hope the fans will understand if I say I have a new favourite Junior hockey team.”
Rev. Glen Matheson spent 10 years as trainer for the Weeks Major Midgets and plenty of miles on the team bus. He spoke of the first responders who attend these types of scenes every day and how they can use support just as much as anyone.
“This is far more than just the families and hockey players.”
He encouraged families to share their feelings when they set out on the road.
“I tell parents to hug their kids, kids hug their parents. You’re never too old to hug.”
MC Michael Petter summed it up succinctly: “We are all Broncos together.”
Members of the hockey community of all ages took part in the event on Thursday evening.
INSET: Hockey billet mom Yvonne McChesney spoke of the bond that forms between billet families and their players. She has provided a safe and loving home for Jr. A Crushers players since 2015. Crushers head coach Doug Doull, left, also spoke at the vigil. (Burns photo)