(FREDERICTON, NB) Like a lot of Canadians, Rylan Parenteau put a hockey stick outside his front door this week.
“It’s a tribute to the lives lost using the one thing that connects all of us,” he said. “We’re dealing with this tragedy through the love of the game.”
Parenteau, a native of Saskatoon, and his Varsity Reds men’s hockey teammates and roommates Kris Bennett, Tyler Boland and Alex Goulet wanted to pay tribute to the Humboldt Broncos.
Last Friday, the Broncos’ team bus was involved in a crash that killed 15 people.
It’s a tragedy that has gripped the nation, Parenteau included.
“It hits close to home for me,” he said. “I have met and got to know a couple players on that team through hockey, and have played against a few of them. I cannot imagine losing a friend or a family member like that.”
Parenteau has just completed his first season with the Varsity Reds.
“My thoughts and prayers are with those fighting through these emotions at an incomprehensible magnitude,” he said.
Despite what he calls a feeling of “absolute sadness,” Parenteau says he’s felt an enormous amount of pride as he’s watched his home province rally in the wake of the crash.
“The response to this accident really shows how united and caring the province of Saskatchewan, and the entire hockey community, really is.”
The tragedy has struck an even greater chord in another of Parenteau’s teammates.
“I was just overcome with emotion, I didn't know what to say. I couldn't believe that so many young men had been taken way too soon,” said Luke Lee-Knight, the Varsity Reds third goaltender.
Lee-Knight, a native of Calgary, played five games with the Humboldt Broncos in 2012.
“Even though it was almost six years ago, I rode the same bus that those boys did,” he said. “I still remember it in almost every detail. I can picture each guy who sat behind, across and in front of me. I've spent so much time in Saskatchewan, it's so easy for me to picture exactly where this happened and I think that has made this tragic event so difficult for me. I've been down those roads, and get pretty choked up just thinking about the surviving players and how they lost 15 brothers.”
Lee-Knight has fond memories of his brief time with the Broncos.
“My Dad was actually born there so I had known about the area for some time before I arrived,” he said. “With the town being so small, there isn't exactly much to do. I think this is why the team has such a strong brotherhood, because you're always doing something together, whether it’s at or away from the rink.”
Parenteau and Lee-Knight aren’t the only Varsity Reds with Humboldt and the Broncos on their minds.
“Over these past few days, I have had a mix of emotions,” said Brynn Nash, another Saskatoon native.
A keeper with the Varsity Reds women’s soccer team, she too is finishing her first year at UNB. “At first, it was disbelief that this tragic incident happened at home, and being away doesn’t make it any less easy,” she said.
“I didn’t know anyone personally, however, my friends, family, old teammates and classmates have been affected by the lives lost or injured. It affects a community as a whole.”
“Like New Brunswick, we’re a pretty small and close province. When something happens, there’s not one person who doesn’t know someone affected by the incident.”
“I can’t imagine, as a coach and as the father of a hockey player, having to deal with that,” said Varsity Reds men’s hockey coach Gardiner MacDougall.
MacDougall spent four seasons as a coach in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, with the Flin Flon Bombers and the former Lebret Eagles.
Word of Friday’s deadly crash hit him hard.
“You’re devastated by news like that,” said MacDougall. “First, when you hear there’s an accident involving a team and their bus, then even more when you learn the extent. It’s the kind of news that brings you to your knees.”
As the names of the victims became known, the impact of the crash reached MacDougall’s own office.
One of the victims, 21-year-old Logan Boulet, a native of Lethbridge, Alberta, attended one of MacDougall’s V-Reds Prospects camps in 2013.
The then-future Bronco visited the Aitken Centre and skated with MacDougall, other Varsity Reds coaches and local hockey players.
Parenteau, Lee-Knight and Nash remember travelling throughout Saskatchewan in pursuit of their respective sporting dreams.
They say the crash and the staggering loss of life will be something they all think of in the future.
“Time on the bus, as long as those trips can be sometimes, has always been a great experience,” said Nash. “Sometimes, those long rides aren’t the best, but for me, that time is used to bond with teammates, maybe blow off some pre-game stress with some laughs or fun traditions.”
“I’ve been in some scary situations on the bus before, due to severe winter weather in Saskatchewan,” said Parenteau. “It’ll be difficult not to think of the lives taken too soon the next time I’m on the bus. I know this event will change everyone’s perspective on it.”
“From now on, you’ll see a bus and you’ll think of the Humboldt Broncos,” said MacDougall. “Every team and every person on those teams will think of the Broncos when they get on their bus. It’s changed our world forever.”
Parenteau, who spent four seasons criss-crossing the Prairies in the Western Hockey League before joining the Varsity Reds, believes bus drivers are under-appreciated.
“They’re responsible for everyone’s safety, often in the harshest of conditions,” he said. “They all deserve so much more praise for the role they play.”
Team buses, according to MacDougall, are sacred places.
“For a team, the dressing room is your home and the bus is your second home, especially in Western Canada.”
Varsity Reds teams travel, for the most part, on buses operated by private companies.
“We appreciate the attention to detail that those companies provide,” said John Richard, UNB’s Director of Athletics. “We’ve been fortunate to have professional and diligent drivers, who put such a premium on safety. Their own safety, and the safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff. It means a lot, especially at a time like this.”
“Not once in all my years have I felt unsafe or worried about what potentially could happen,” said Lee-Knight, about the thousands of kilometres he’s travelled on team buses. “I guess the only thing that would change for me is that I will always text my parents when I leave and tell them that I love them.”
Later this week, the Varsity Reds hockey team will celebrate its graduating seniors. Coach MacDougall says there will be a moment of remembrance in tribute to the Broncos.
“On behalf of UNB Hockey, we are all thinking about Humboldt, those lost, and the survivors,” he said. “The hockey world is small. We’ll be there to do anything they need us to do, support them in any way we can.”
For now, Parenteau and his roommates will leave the hockey stick by their front door, their small contribution to a grieving nation’s attempts to make sense of the tragedy.
“To those who did not make it, rest in peace,” he said. “To those battling to recover from the incident, everyone is behind you.”