In the wake of the sudden and tragic loss of a long time Springbank coach and volunteer, the hockey community is once again proving just how powerful the game can be.
On October 13, Justin Ikebuchi was involved in a fatal car crash. In the days and weeks following, his wife, Jamie, and children Sydney, Raiden, Calder and Devin have seen the entire hockey community rally around them and show their support
“They check in on us, constantly check in on us,” said Jamie. “They’ve supported us with meals, with texts and emails, and small things, like the doorbell will ring and there will be a latte there for me. We’ve had little gifts and quite large gifts given to us. It’s pretty overwhelming overall, but in a good way; all of these gestures of kindness have really helped give us strength as we move through these last few weeks.”
Coaching and volunteering was a huge part of Justin’s life. With Raiden (13), Calder (11) and Devin (9) all playing minor hockey, Justin was heavily involved as a coach, and as a member of the the Springbank Minor Hockey Association (SMHA) Board of Directors. He was the SMHA Timbits (U7) Coordinator for five years, and was the VP of Hockey for the last two.
“I know that he gave back because he truly enjoyed his experience as a child growing up getting to play sports, and he wanted to make sure he gave back like people did for him,” Jamie said.
Justin’s influence on the game is unmistakable, as seen by the lasting impression he left as a coach.
“He was definitely known as the coach with the red helmet and the red gloves, and he was the one who told (the players) all of the time to play hard and have fun,” Jamie said. “He wanted them to love the game as much as he loved the game, and he wanted them to not just love the game, but he wanted them to love being part of a team, because he felt like being part of a team and being a good teammate was a life skill.”
“Dad was the best coach,” said Raiden, Justin’s eldest son. “He was always very positive. The game wasn’t always about being the best to him, but working towards being the best. He wanted me to play hockey because I loved it, not because he wanted me to love it. That’s just kind of who he was.”
Raiden’s teammate, Jack McHarg, echoed that sentiment, and said Justin’s number-one goal was to make sure hockey was fun for everyone.
“He always came to practice with a smile,” he said. “With four kids, he always made our practices, he was very committed to the game, and he always made sure, even if we lost a game, he made us hold our heads up high, and he always made us feel good at the end of the day.”
Justin’s impact as a coach reached far beyond just the players, as the coaches he’s shared the ice with over the years speak very fondly of his coaching style and personality.
"Justin was a fantastic coach; he was always there for the boys and always there for the right reasons,” said Jack’s father, David McHarg, Justin’s co-coach and a family friend. “I think just because he loved the game so much, he wanted to add to it. Whether it was at an administration level within the Springbank Minor Hockey Association, or as a coach, or even just as a helper on the ice, a parent in the box, or doing anything, he was always there supporting everyone along the way - parents, players, coaches. It was all for the game.”
“Cory Larson, another of Justin’s co-coaches and a family friend, said Justin’s personality was infectious.
“I felt like he was the guy that was on the ice in practice, wherever he was, the kids sort of gravitated towards him” he said. “If they weren’t in a drill, they’d be over talking to him, and he was that guy that could be that supportive, fun-loving guy that was out there making sure everybody had a good time, all the time.”
Jonathan Black, also a co-coach and family friend, said Justin’s coaching style was a lot more than just drawing up plays on a clipboard.
“What he did better than most people was the relationship piece,” he said. “I would be at a tournament getting medals ready and handing things out, and he’s the guy who’s talking to each individual kid as they’re waiting, where typically coaches might just stand around. He coupled the idea of a real coach trying to improve the kids and teach them how to play a team sport, but also that relationship piece, which was so important with kids understanding and believing what he had to say.”
Brent Merchant, who coached alongside Justin for over six years and also became a family friend, said his commitment as a volunteer was something to behold.
“For most parents, it’s maybe a little intimidating just to jump in with both feet and commit to being a huge volunteer,” he said. “I think for Justin, it just came naturally; he was just was part of that Springbank hockey community from day one. Whether it was in a coaching role, or as part of the board of directors, he just seemed to kind of jump in with both feet, which you can appreciate - that’s not easy to do with the amount of energy and time it takes.”
Nicole Kraljic, the SMHA’s administrator, worked closely with Justin as a volunteer, and said the time and effort he put in to improving the game will have a positive effect on the association for years to come.
“He leaves behind the framework, of which we are working on still to this day at the board level, of our coaches, and doing our coach credentials, and keeping a legacy of information for our coaches and training them, and that’s something that his fingerprints will be all over when we’re done developing it,” she said. “Justin did everything with thought and purpose;. When he finalized a roster, he was always thinking about the player and their potential development, and that was every player.”
While the shockwave of Justin’s sudden passing hit Springbank hard, it was also felt around the entire hockey community. On October 20, in Raiden’s first game back with the NWCAA U15 AA Bronks, he scored a goal. In fitting fashion, it was the team’s eighth goal of the game - which just happens to be Justin’s favourite number.
“A very emotional night obviously for the boys, to have Raiden there and back with the group, and Jamie and her family in the stands,” said David McHarg. “It was emotional just being there, but also just to see him score that eighth goal, and with that being his dad’s favourite number, it was just extra special.”
While Raiden’s entire team celebrated the emotional moment with him, the members of the CNHA Kings came together with the Bronks at the end of the game and raised their sticks in honour of Justin and his family.
“After we beat them, they still had the respect to do something like that,” Raiden said. “You battle it out on the ice, but after it’s all said and done, you’re all playing for the same reason, because you love what you do, and there’s a lot of respect there.”
In that game, the entire team also sported red tape on their sticks (Justin’s favourite colour), as well as Justin’s initials in red on their helmets - which Raiden said was done by all NWCAA U15 AA teams.
In the days following the game, Raiden’s touching story made its way around social media, and caught the attention of the entire hockey community, including the Calgary Flames. On October 28, two of the Flames - Milan Lucic and captain Mark Giordano - surprised Raiden and his teammates at practice.
“Those guys are his heroes,” Jamie said. “What I thought was pretty awesome was that those men came to talk to my son, and they asked if it was okay if they spoke about their own personal loss, because both of them have lost loved ones tragically. They left their families for the day to come and speak to a boy, and it was a sad situation - it’s hard to talk to people who have lost someone, but they chose to do that.”
“That was very special,” said Raiden. “I was super surprised, I had no idea. I heard a couple of the boys saying that some of the Flames were being interviewed outside, but I didn’t think anything of it. Those guys have been my heroes; I’ve been a fan of Lucic since he won the (Stanley) Cup with Boston.”
Giordano and Lucic both said Raiden’s story hits very close to home for them, so they were more than happy to take the time to show their support. For Giordano, his sister died in a car crash at the age of 14. Lucic experienced the sudden death of his father.
“It’s never something that’s easy to deal with,” said Lucic. “Just to be here to support him is the least that I can do, and we can do as far as the Flames organization, happy to be here supporting him through a time like this.
Jamie added the gesture was especially touching because the impact went beyond the family.
“They got on the ice and practiced with the team. So the whole team got to have that experience, it was pretty awesome for them to have that bonding experience together, so I thought that was pretty great of those gentlemen,” she said.
As for the outpouring of support the Ikebuchi family has received, Giordano said he’s not surprised to see the hockey community come together in the face of tragedy.
“I’ve been playing hockey now for a long, long time, and the support we receive from family, friends, community - it’s second to none,” Giordano said. “When I was a young kid and had some tragedy in my life, one of the biggest things that helped me get through was coming to the rink and being with my buddies and teammates.”
And Jamie knows that hockey will be a key part of the recovery process for her three boys.
For Raiden, hockey has been his passion since he was three, and Jamie was concerned he would have a hard time going to hockey, because his dad was such a big part of the game for him.
Calder is a defenceman, whose love of hockey has developed over time, and it’s important to Jamie that he continues to enjoy the sport.
“Devin is the happiest little hockey player you have ever seen,” she said. “So, my hope for him, because he said this weekend that hockey is not fun without his dad, that dad is what makes hockey fun, my hope is that he’ll find joy with hockey again.”
And Justin will not be forgotten within the local hockey community, as Springbank has named its yearly volunteer of the year award after him.
“Whether it was community members or friends, the outpouring of commitment from people was unreal. But what impresses me is that commitment that they have today, I think this is going to be for years down the road,” said Brent Merchant.
Jamie said the ongoing support their family has seen from the hockey community goes beyond what words can express.
“It’s very overwhelming, but in a good way. I love my husband, and I love him as a dad, and he touched so many people in our Springbank Minor Hockey community, and they are really helping us get through this very devastating and tragic time,” she said. ”There’s this life question Justin and I have talked about - in life, do you get what you get, or do you get what you give? He would say you get what you give, and I now know that to be true, and you get more.”