Hockey Alberta’s Regional Consultant, South, Matt Weninger, contributes regularly to the Lethbridge Herald with his "Hockey Talk" column. His most recent piece focuses on the Humboldt Broncos tragedy, and the effect by the entire hockey world, the country, and beyond.
It is in quite a sombre and reflective mood that I write this article. Usually I like to start my column discussing the weather or some programs that Hockey Alberta is running. All of that seems to feel irrelevant this week based on both the tragedy in Humboldt and the news of Brock Hirsche passing away Sunday morning.
It is rather difficult to comprehend what happened in Humboldt and even more challenging to understand the magnitude of this accident. I coached Layne Matechuk at the U16 WHL Cup a few years ago (who remains in a coma at this point), played hockey with assistant coach Mark Cross last year and crossed paths several times with Logan Boulet over the years (both of whom passed away). As well, my neighbour Andrew Thompson was a member of the Broncos last year before a trade took him to Melfort where he finished the season, and saw his season end at the hands of the Broncos no less.
I have rode buses for hundreds of thousands of miles (maybe more but definitely not less) in both my playing and coaching career - blindly placing all of my trust in the bus driver to get us to our destination safely.
Those who have never played junior hockey (or even hockey in general) may not understand the sanctity of the bus. The bus is where we live, watch movies, do homework, play cards, sleep and socialize with our teammates. Where we drive from one location to the next in a travelling box that at its best the TVs work, the Wi-Fi works and is a tolerable place to be. At its worst it smells like the bathroom, is too hot or too cold and most assuredly is uncomfortable.
The reality is that anyone who has played a high level of hockey has more than a few unhappy stories of 16-hour bus rides, of hearing the rumble strips at 2 a.m. and of buses breaking down on the side of the road hours from your destination. We hate the bus, we dread the trips but we tolerate it because we love the game, we strive for the competition and we would do anything for the teammates we ride the bus for (even the ones whose personal hygiene in these confined spaces isn’t ideal and those who can’t hold it until the next time the bus stops).
I have ridden a bus from Canton, N.Y. to Houghton, Michigan, and Flin Flon, Man. to Estevan, Sask., and those are only a few of the horrible trips I can name. I used to bring a big, thick blanket, place it on the floor with a pillow over top and sleep on the floor through the night because that beat having to try and squish on a lumpy seat with the cold window as a pillow. The bus trips were not something to look forward to and the longer the trip and the worse the weather the more dreaded the trip home.
But that is part of the culture of hockey, and it will never change. I am not one to complain about that culture and I don’t want anyone to think I am complaining about the lifestyle. Because I don’t want it to change. Because as bad as those bus trips are, the reward of getting to play the game you love in front of thousands of people who either cheer you or jeer you is the rush that is worth the bus trip. The challenge of winning a game -and to those who don’t understand it, we know it is only a game - is worth the reward of the nine-hour bus ride. And should you lose - that nine-hour bus ride is necessary to cure the mental anguish of the loss.
It’s not about hockey players being a different breed. It’s about the friendships built on a team, the bond built within a group and the bus being the means to meet a challenge and to live a temporary dream that we all know will one day come to an end. The sad part of this story is so many in the hockey world can connect to life on the bus. We all feel so emotionally scarred seeing 16 individuals living the same dream that we can all connect with and seeing so many dreams and lives end in a tragic accident.
I will never forget hearing the news of that bus accident last weekend, and I will also never forget the many bus trips I have taken throughout my life, whether that was home from a loss or home from a win. But this weekend made me appreciate how lucky I was to be able to return home.
I’d also like acknowledge the loss our community feels with the passing of Brock Hirsche. My last column, I aimed to show my respect and gratitude of how incredible a person Brock was. Even when I was writing that column I still believed we’d have many more months of Brock with us, that I would run into Brock many more times. Unfortunately, Brock left us much too soon.
This weekend has hit our community extremely hard. To those we lost last weekend, you will be missed, and the reaction from the rest of the world assures your legacy will live on.
The memorial service for Brock will be on Friday at Nicholas Sheran, and the memorial for Logan will be Saturday at Nicholas Sheran. There are two families in our community that are hurting and this is a chance for us to show them our support.