‘We’re a big family’

From left to right, a Prince Albert Mintos jersey, a Humboldt Broncos jersey and a Prince Albert Raiders jersey sit on a stand with a pair of candles lit in memory of former Minto Jacob Leicht and former Raiders prospect Adam Herold. Both players died in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash on Friday. Another former Minto, Layne Matechuk, is in a coma. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Even by hockey player standards, Doug McLeod has wracked up a lot of hours on the bus.

As a centreman with the Midget AAA Norman North Stars in Thompson, Man., McLeod’s closest away game required a seven-hour bus ride. Things got better when he made the jump to Junior A—first with the Portage Terriers of the MJHL and then for three seasons with the SJHL’s Flin Flon Bombers—but only slightly. In Flin Flon, their closest bus trip was a four-hour trek to La Ronge.

He remembers a few close calls during those trips, most notably when they clipped a moose during a late night ride back home to Thompson, but nothing like what happened Friday to the Humboldt Broncos.

“You just take those little things for granted,” an emotional McLeod said on Sunday. “It’s horrific what just happened. You never want to see that happen to anybody…. You just want everyone to have a safe drive to the game and a safe drive home.”

McLeod was one of a long list of former junior and professional players who made the trip to Prince Albert for the Fourth Annual Senator’s Cup last weekend. Sunday’s championship final between Red Pheasant and Norway House, originally scheduled for 7 p.m., was pushed back one hour as players, officials, fans and local residents filled the Art Hauser Centre to honour the Broncos hockey team.

For the players involved, there was no question that postponing the game was the right thing to do.

“As many people have said across Canada, the tragedy touches hockey everywhere,” said Red Pheasant captain Sheldon Wuttunee, whose younger brother suited up for 44 games with the Humboldt Broncos between 2002 and 2004. “Hockey brings communities together and we try to encourage that with our team, that we’re a big family.”

“There were a couple of speeches that really made me choke up,” McLeod added. “Even now, it’s very touchy. I can’t imagine what the families are going through. With all the travelling I’ve done, I’m grateful that I’m still around and can play the game I love.”

Although Sunday’s memorial was held for all 29 Bronco players, coaches and staff members involved in Friday’s crash, there was a special focus on three of them: Prince Albert Raider draft pick Adam Herold and former Prince Albert Mintos players Layne Matechuck and Jacob Leicht.

Herold and Leicht both perished in the crash, while Matechuk is in a coma Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital. A report from the Saskatoon StarPhoenix describes his condition as “very serious, but stable.”

While players and officials gathered at centre ice, organizers set up a table with a Broncos jersey at the centre, flanked by Raiders and Mintos sweaters, and candles in honour of the two deceased players.

“This is a tough one for me,” Mintos head coach Ken Morrison said during the service. “I’m probably going to have to keep it short.”

Matechuk had a two game call up with the Mintos during the 2014-15 season, then played full-time with the club up until last year. This was his first season with the Broncos. Morrison called him a “first class kid” who was a hard worker and a great teammate on and off the ice.

“He’s got some serious injuries, but with the support of his family and the rest of us, we’re praying that he pulls through,” Morrison said.

Leicht played one season with the Mintos, suiting up for 37 games in 2016-17. He was also in his first season with the Broncos, and was one of a handful of homegrown players on the club’s roster.

Morrison struggled to speak while taking about Leitch, who was remembered as a small player with a big heart.

“He played really hard, blocked a ton of shots (and) did all the stuff nobody else really wanted to do,” the Mintos coach said. “He comes from a great family, as does Matty (Layne Matechuk), and I really feel for (the families). I just can’t imagine what that would be like. The Minto organization will never forget Jacob Leicht. We’ll try to honour him as much as we can when we play.”

Raiders prospect and former Regina Pat Canadians captain Adam Herold was the youngest player killed in Friday’s crash. The defenceman from the small town of Montmartre, Sask. had only just started his WHL career, playing three games with the club this past season during a brief call up. Raiders skills coach Mark Odnokon said Herold made the most of his short stint, and had the club eagerly awaiting his arrival next year.

“He was the captain of the Regina Pat Canadians,” Odnokon said. “That tells you a great deal about what the young man was like.”

Sunday’s ceremony ended with the singing of a traditional First Nations memorial spirit journey song, a performance of Amazing Grace by a lone piper, and a prayer from Prince Albert Raiders team chaplin Shane Acorn.

Acorn said the weekend’s events were much different from the challenges and concerns he normally dealt with as team chaplin. Nevertheless, he encouraged residents to seek solace and comfort with God, and to not be afraid to grieve.

“Jesus wept for the same reason that we all have wept over the last three days,” Acorn said after reciting John 11:35. “He lost someone very close to him and his natural reaction was to weep, to cry for the loss (and) to cry for the family members…. I encourage us all, as God has wired us this way, that tears are a good thing, and so over the coming days, let those tears fall.”

@kerr_jas • jason.kerr@paherald.sk.ca