Norwich hockey community mourns, comes together after Saskatchewan junior hockey team’s crash takes 16 lives

The bonds athletes make with their teammates are almost incomparable. For a junior league hockey player, they’re as tight as it gets: When you eat, sleep and breathe the sport of hockey with the same 20-odd guys every day and night for eight months out of the year, the brotherhood bond is inevitable.

Freshman Norwich ice hockey player Michael Korol can attest to this brotherhood, and feels especially blessed for the memories he has been given with his former junior league hockey team, the Humboldt Broncos. Now, he cherishes them a little extra following the deadly accident that occurred in Saskatchewan leading to heartbreak all over the country.

Sixteen junior league hockey members of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) woke up on Friday morning unaware of the fate that awaited them later that evening on April 6.

The Humboldt Broncos were on their way to game five of the SJHL playoffs last Friday evening when their bus suddenly was hit at an intersection by a semi-trailer on Highway 35 just miles north of Tisdale, Saskatchewan.

For Korol here in Northfield, the terrible accident hit home.

“Personally, my first reaction when I found out was just flat out disbelief. You hear stories about these kinds of things happening, but until it happens to those that are close to you, there are essentially no words or emotions to describe it,” Korol said.

Among the 16 killed that day was Korol’s long-time close friend and teammate, 19-year old Logan Schatz from Allan, Saskatchewan.

“I definitely lost some very good friends and teammates. My roommate and one of my closest friends, Logan Schatz, did not survive the accident. The endless laughs and memories with him are ones that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”

There were 29 people on the bus when the crash happened, a list including players, coaches, and the bus driver. More than half of the group were confirmed dead later that following Sunday, while the remainder were left severely injured, with hopeless and heavy hearts.

“When I got the news, I just thought this had to be some terrible dream that I needed to wake up from,” said freshman Norwich hockey player Connor Swystun, who played for the Humboldt Broncos.

The head coach of the team, Darcy Haugan, was also one of the first confirmed casualties at the scene of the accident that Friday evening.

Among the kind words offered involving the victims was Broncos’ team president’s comment about the organization itself, claiming that “the Humboldt Broncos were about not building hockey players but creating amazing young men.”

The hockey community can often seem like one giant family and the accident proved that point, as hockey players from the pros on down responded and joined to mourn.

Wayne Gretzky, the Canada native and former National Hockey League player nicknamed “The Great One,” tweeted later the following evening after the tragedy happened, “Janet and I have struggled all day with the horrific accident in Saskatchewan. We are so sad for the @Humboldt Broncos families and are praying for them.”

This tweet is just one of thousands of thoughts and prayers sent out to the Broncos community. The lending hands will never end.

“The overall support the city of Humboldt has received is absolutely incredible. The hockey world is such a close-knit community when it comes to times like these, and to see that unfold right in front of you is very special,” Korol added.

The Broncos were en route via bus to game five of the best-of-seven league playoffs which also led to many unanswered questions as to how the SJHL final playoff games will go on, though that was the last of everyone’s worries at this point.

As Korol, along with many other friends and family members of the Humboldt Broncos organization continue to mourn, so does Swystun, who was a long-time friend of the players that lost their lives on Friday evening, having played many games with them as a former team member.

Swystun continues to be overwhelmed with the kindness he has felt from those who knew his connection to the team.

“The support Mike and I have received has been absolutely amazing. Everyone has been offering everything they have to help us either get back home or just with the grieving process itself.”

The governor of the league, Rick Shultz, had only a handful of words to describe this tragedy. He has been involved with the league for over 40 years now, including being a player in the SJHL himself back in his junior hockey days. This is the first time the league has ever faced a tragedy like this, leaving the organization completely stunned and at a loss for words.

The whole country of Canada, where hockey is embraced as a national sport, has seen an overwhelming amount of grief and support following the tragedy.

Swystun recalled the deep bonds that occurred on the team, noting that “some of the best memories made with the guys were simply just from being on the bus to and from games. In junior hockey especially, you are on the bus sometimes up to three days a week. The bus rides were a huge part of the memories made. There was no shortage of jokes and laughs shared on the bus rides, that’s for sure.”

For Korol and Swystun, two former Humboldt Broncos assistant captains as well as Saskatchewan natives, it has been heartwarming to see the Norwich hockey community come together to grieve with them.

“My friends and teammates here at Norwich have been amazing. The amount of support, and encouragement they have given Connor and myself is like none other. I am extremely thankful for all of them,” Korol said.

“I was a part of the Humboldt organization the last four years before coming to Norwich. During that time, I was fortunate enough to meet many lifetime friends and brothers,” Swystun said. “I will cherish those relationships forever.” Among the injured was Swystun’s former defense partner and close friend, 17-year old Xavier Labelle.

“Xavier was my d-partner during my last season playing for the Broncos. He was just 17 years old just like I was when I joined the Broncos three years prior. I knew him and his family many years before that though. I thought of him as a brother. I took him under my wing and taught him the ways of the new league and the new city.”

When any tragedy happens in the worldwide hockey community, the support and love is simply overwhelming as it touches the hearts of people everywhere. “A Go Fund Me page was set up. All of the proceeds will be donated to the Humboldt Broncos, and the families of all the victims. As of right now they have raised just over $4.3 million dollars. It’s quite simply incredible,” Korol said with a smile recently.

As of this Monday, the Humboldt Broncos organization will soon be closing the GoFundMe page, having raised an incredible $12 million to support players and families affected by a crash that left 16 people dead and 13 injured, according to the CBC. It is the largest GoFundMe campaign in Canadian history. Just a fraction of this support continues to come from NHL teams across the map, the rest from teams and citizens across Canada and the U.S.

On the Saturday following the accident, many NHL teams paid their respects, including raising money in order to benefit the families of the victims and honoring moments of silence before the games.

Both the Chicago Blackhawks and the Winnipeg Jets organizations chipped in each with a generous donation of $25,000 and sported ‘Broncos’ on the backs of their jerseys, instead of the players own names for Saturday’s match-up.

As it turns out, the operator of the semi-trailer was not hurt in the crash and police continue to investigate but the cause of the crash is not yet known.

It will be a long recovery for the young men grieving with the sudden loss of their brothers and teammates, but the members of the Broncos organization continue to persevere, with the breathtaking amount of love and support from hockey communities far and wide.

“Being a Humboldt Bronco is something that I will hold close to my heart for the rest of my life. Having had the honor to wear the green and gold jersey for three years is something I will never forget,” Korol said. “Showing up to the rink and going to war with each and every one of those guys is definitely a memory that I will always cherish.”

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