On April 6th, around 5pm, a passenger bus carrying the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Humboldt Broncos - kids aged 16-21 - collided with a semi-trailer in devastating force at the Highway 335 junction not far from Tisdale, SK. A town of just over three-thousand people, Tisdale is considered the Honey Capital of the province and an important agricultural center for prairie dwelling farmers on the edge of the boreal forest. I’d spent a number of years ministering near Yorkton, living among farmers and miners alike, being only a 3 hour drive from Tisdale. Growing up, I’d even hunted for whitetail with my father and brother nearly every November, sleeping in a hunting shack for days just outside of the Moose Capital of the World, Hudson Bay.
Hockey, like hunting and fishing, was an exciting part of my childhood. It was also an important component on the school-ground. As soon as the early parts of fall would turn frosty, the football would be put away for hockey sticks and yellow tennis balls. The recess bell would sound, teams would be drawn up and for fifteen glorious minutes we would vigorously play street hockey, either winning or losing but always, and undoubtedly, relishing with exuberance the time away from desks, assignments, reading out loud, rules, teachers, and above all the dreaded and confusing interactions with the opposite sex. For these were pre-dating days, and so the schoolyard was full of boys playing hockey.
But that doesn’t last long and soon enough the hockey on the streets is ignored for the serious play in the arenas. I remember going to Flin Flon Bomber games (my hockey playing experiences are limited to the most amateur settings, away from the leagues), sitting among my peers as some viciously yelled at the reefs for nearly every blown whistle against us. It was, at times, bordering the barbaric, especially when the gloves were dropped at center ice halfway through the third period of a close and frustrating 2-1 game. Load the penalty box at that moment: we didn’t care. Someone had to pay for goalie interference. Even if he’d hacked their right-wingers shines since the start of the game, a reckoning would befall all who habitually trespassed the goalie’s crease.
Those outside of hockey culture don’t get this sorta justice. But it’s an integral part of the game just as the game is an integral part of the community. Winters in Western Canada are long, brutal affairs that can easily extend into the early weeks of May. Cabin Fever is a serious problem, rigidly setting in depressions, thick as a four feet of ice on a barren lake. The hockey arena has been a good antidote amidst howling northern winds. It’s been more than a game, more than the goals and accolades, but a source of warmth for kids and adults alike. It’s at the heart of the community where generations are able to huddle together and get along over a cup of coffee and an arena burger.
The tragic death of sixteen lives has touched so many because most of us can relate with the kids, parents, trainers, coaches, bus driver, and trucker. The team is in pain, hospitalized and grieving. We grieve too in expressions ranging from anger and calls to inquiries and justice to heartfelt sadness, tears and prayer. A whole community has been rocked and there are the injured, and the parents, siblings, families and friends who are trying to make sense of the whole thing the best they can. Grief is a lot like midnight waves of the sea - it comes and goes with strange frequencies, pushing our emotions all over the place while swamping our ability to think straight. As best you can it’s better to ride it out rather than fight or ignore the waves, one day at a time. Know too that “the Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed “ (Psalm 34:18). Through the cross, Jesus has shown us that He is never far from our pain. He too knows what it means to suffer. And as our Heavenly Father, He understands grieve. To all my friends and family in the Great White North, we are praying and grieving with you. May our Lord be with you and may His peace be in abundance.