[Updated] SJHL president grapples with ‘nightmare’ bus crash reality

Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League president Bill Chow holds back tears as he addresses the media on April 7, 2018 at Humboldt's Elgar Petersen Arena, a day after the Humboldt Broncos team bus was involved in a fatal collision with a semi-truck near Tisdale, Sask. -- Evan Radford/Daily Herald

Humboldt, Sask. — The president of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) was at a loss for words as he addressed the media on Saturday, a day after a semi-truck struck a junior hockey team’s bus, killing 15 people inside as the team headed north for a playoff game on Friday evening.

The bus was carrying players, coaches, at least one trainer and the play-by-play broadcaster of the Humboldt Broncos, a Junior A hockey team that’s a member of the SJHL.

The Broncos were en route to Nipawin for Game 5 of their semifinal playoff series against the Hawks.

At about 5 p.m., a westbound semi-truck struck the northbound bus at the intersection of Highways 35 and 335 north of Tisdale, according to the RCMP.

On Saturday at the Broncos’ home arena, SJHL president Bill Chow had trouble speaking to the media while standing at the microphone podium, needing to stop and gather himself before starting.

Holding back tears, he said, “I don’t have a lot to say, other than the worst nightmare has happened. As a league, we will support the Humboldt Broncos every way possible.”

He kept it brief and addressed the main topics of concern in a media scrum after the official press conference – what do the Broncos and the Hawks do with the remainder of their postseasons, and how do the Broncos begin to move on.

Chow was mum on specifics, but he indicated that he and the SJHL’s board of directors will be making a decision based on what the Broncos want.

“Obviously, this hasn’t happened anywhere. It’s like I’ve said through my own head, I’ve said, ‘you know what? We’re just going to go as things unfold. We’re going to try and figure it out, we’re going to go one step at a time.’

“And like I said earlier, people aren’t going to be in favour of our decisions that we make, one way or the other. I understand that. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be what our group thinks is right, and go forward,” Chow said.

One of those decisions will be ruling on how the SJHL can – or will – continue with its postseason play this season.

Prior to Friday’s game, the Hawks held a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven games playoff series; the Estevan Bruins advanced to the league final on Thursday.

“To be fair to everybody … it’s important that we have conversations first, and then once we make those decisions, you can ask me that question,” Chow said in response to a reporter’s query about this year’s SJHL season.

Friday’s tragedy is unprecedented in this province.

In 1986, the team bus for the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos was involved in a single-vehicle collision just east of Swift Current after the bus hit a patch of ice on an overpass outside of the city.

Four Swift Current players were killed in that crash; the team finished the WHL season that year.

Chow said former WHL player Sheldon Kennedy – a member of the team in 1986 – reached out to him on Twitter as a show of support.

The SJHL president said Kennedy has already offered to visit and speak with the surviving Humboldt team members as part of the healing process; he also referenced Tim Tisdale, another Swift Current survivor of the ‘86 bus crash, as a possible support person.

“At some point in time, that will be important, because these young men moving forward, this is going to become part of their memory, whether you like it or not … that’s just life.

“Being able to cope with that, and not being afraid to seek somebody out to speak to – and really sit down and speak to and get some help – is going to be important.”

He also emphasized that the league’s other teams seek counselling and the adequate support they feel they need.

Chow explained that as of right now, each team has a chaplain that team members use for support.

“Of course now … Red Cross and Mobile Crisis have been activated in both communities, in Humboldt and Nipawin, and anybody requiring services will hopefully reach out and go to those agencies for that assistance … whether it’s the players, coaches, whatever.”

The last thing a person should feel is ashamed to ask for help, Chow said.

His and the board of directors’ focus is now to begin a dialogue with the Humboldt team to see how it would like to proceed.

“We’ll sit down and talk through that with the Broncos and the rest of the league, and we’ll figure out whatever we have to do to make it work. It’s first and foremost to find out what they want to do, and try to come up with a plan to make sure that it works.”

League, Co-op roll out assistance program

On Monday, Chow announced that the league will be rolling out the SJHL Assistance Program, a new mental health support program with funding help from Federated Co-operatives Limited.

“This program will aid in providing mental health assistance, counselling and grieving for all the players of the SJHL,” Chow said at a press conference. “Should there be funds available, the extra monies will go into an education program in memory of the lives lost on April 6, 2018.”

He explained that the program will raise money for all people, both within the Humboldt Broncos organization and in the other 10 SJHL teams, who are affected by Friday’s tragic bus collision.

The program’s intent, Chow explained, is to “help take care of the mental and emotional effects of the accident and its heavy impact on the people of the league.”

To help start the program, 44 Co-op stores from across Saskatchewan have already committed to give a combined total of $135,000.

Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) has matched those donations for a total of $270,000.

CEO Scott Banda estimated that by late Monday morning, that amount had exceeded $300,000.

FCL will continue to match local Co-op contributions up to a total of $500,000.

“Like so many Canadians, we’re looking for any way we can to help the many people in the Broncos organization, and throughout the league, and indeed across Western Canada, who are grappling with the physical and emotional devastation caused by this accident,” Banda said.

“I hope that our contributions today are only the start and that they’ll encourage other businesses and organizations to donate to the SJHL Assistance Program as it supports players and their families in the coming months.”

Chow also announced that the league has partnered with clothing supplier 22Fresh to sell #HumboldtStrong t-shirts at Co-op stores and online through 22 Fresh; proceeds from the sales will go to the SJHL Assistance Program.

The shirts are not yet for sale; details and updates on their availability will be provided by FCL and 22Fresh as soon as possible, shared through the league’s website at SJHL.ca.

Broncos done for the year

Looking to the future of the team, Broncos team president Kevin Garinger said, “We will be doing everything in our power to try and maintain the Humboldt Broncos.”

He explained that means the team will not continue with its current postseason.

“Obviously what we’re looking toward is next year, next hockey season. What will transpire from now until then is really what we’re trying to focus on. But that is something that won’t be considered until we get through supporting the needs of our families and that sort of thing.”

At a press conference on Monday, Chow said that he and the league’s board of governors and directors will hold a conference call on Wednesday to try to reach a decision about how the current SJHL season finishes, and whether or not that includes a league final.