Winter time and the frozen river/Sunday afternoon/They're playing hockey on the frozen river/Rosie...!
– Jane Siberry, "Hockey"
We could have done a lot worse for a neighbor than Canada. They’ve given us Four Strong Winds, and Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell, and four-fifths of The Band, and that’s even after we invaded them a couple of times, which was not neighborly of us at all. They made sense out of universal health-care 40 years ago and have been discreet enough not to lord that over us – well, not very much anyway. Which reminds me that Tommy Douglas, the father of the Canadian system, helped bring us his grandson, Kiefer Sutherland. And, in 2004, a CBC program named Douglas The Greatest Canadian of All Time. In that same poll, Wayne Gretzky finished 10th, three spots behind Don Cherry. (Oh, Canada. Why?) Which brings us to hockey, Canada’s greatest gift to its downstairs neighbor.
There is an encompassing warmth to hockey that touches everybody who plays it, and everybody who loves it, and everybody who writes about it for a living. It’s impossible to define, but you know it when you feel it. Hockey doesn’t demand the kind of intellectual vassaldom that baseball requires. There doesn’t seem to be the same kind of entrance exam that there is to other sports. Walk into any rink – either as a mom at six in the morning, with the next Great One tying his skates wrong in the chill of the dawn, or as an aging cynic in a press box, three stories above the ice – and you immediately feel part of a kind of extended family. My father coached hockey in high school. I would occasionally drop by his practices and games after school. As soon as that cold air hit the back of my sinuses, followed shortly by the smell of sweat and wool and leather, I felt a sense of great belonging.
It has stayed with me, at the barnlike rink in Warroad, Minnesota, and at Northwoods Coliseum, where I saw Gretzky play for the first time, and in the old Forum in Montreal, the place of my childhood dreams as a lost Canadiens fan in Bruins country, a devotee of the great Jean Beliveau, who once answered a fan letter of mine, because he was Jean Beliveau and he played hockey and that’s the way you did things when that was who you were. No wonder singer Jane Siberry made him the hero of her lovely tribute to the roots of the game, Sunday afternoons, on a frozen river.
This stick was signed by Jean Beliveau/So don’t f---ing tell me where to f---ing go.
I thought a lot about this over the weekend, when the news trickled in from Saskatchewan of the horrible accident that killed 15 members of the Humboldt Broncos, a franchise in the Saskatchewan junior hockey league. Hockey enfolded the team and the town in its grief almost immediately. Every NHL team paid some sort of tribute to the Broncos as they finished up the regular season over the weekend. The players on the Winnipeg Jets and Chicago Blackhawks played a game in which each player wore jerseys that said, “Broncos” on the back. In less than two days, a GoFundMe campaign on behalf of the families of the Humboldt team members, living and dead, topped $3 million. And in perhaps the most signifying gesture of all, people began to leave hockey sticks outside their houses and at rinks all over Canada and the United States. This extraordinary gesture began when Brian Munz, a play-by-play announcer for TSN, shared a picture that he’d received from a friend in Humboldt: The message showed a lonely hockey stick left out on the front step of a home with the message, "Leaving it out on the porch tonight. The boys might need it ... wherever they are."
The sun is fading on the frozen river, the wind is dying down…
The crash took place at an intersection called Armley Corner, where Highway 335 and Highway 35 meet. It is a notorious place. In 1997, six members of a family from Alberta died there when their vehicle collided with a grain truck. It is a place like so many other places on the wide prairies of western Canada, flat and running toward the Rockies under a blue and infinite sky.
So many small towns, like Humboldt. So many teams, like the Broncos. The towns are a mixture of Victorian Britain, refugee Quebecois from the east, and what Canadians call First Nations. Battlefords and Flin Flon. La Ronge and Notre Dame. Humboldt and Nipawin. The teams are called the Millonnaires (Melville), the Hounds (Notre Dame) and the Terriers (Yorktown), and even the Bruins (Estavan), Canucks (Moose Jaw) and Red Wings (Weyburn). That is the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, in which, over the weekend, the Humboldt Broncos were on their way to play the Nipawin Hawks. Humboldt was named after a German explorer while Nipawin is a Cree word meaning “resting place.” The game never happened because Humboldt never got there.
The darkest thoughts are the ones that come and make you wonder why this horrible thing doesn’t happen more often. Every week, in both countries, teams climb on buses to get from one place to a distant other. High school teams. College teams. Travel teams in every sport, all of them full of kids. AAU basketball teams. Semi-pro teams. Minor league teams in every sport. And then there are the airplanes. Marshall football in 1970. Wichita State football, that same year. The U.S. Figure Skating team in 1961. The Cuban fencing team, killed in 1976 when their plane was brought down by a bomb planted by anti-Castro terrorists, at least one of whom was granted asylum in the United States. To be an elite athlete is to be a vagabond, a member of a constantly mobile community that stops only for games and practices, and for highway fast-food in the middle of the night, the burgers getting cold between the counter and the bus, and your breath clouding the windows in the western dark.
Perhaps that’s what struck so deeply about the Humboldt tragedy. So many of us have children now who travel to play their games, at every age and at every level. There are millions of us with our kids in minivans or on buses or on planes every weekend, sometimes making two or three stops to play two or three games. Hockey parents in Canada got there before all the rest of us. For decades, the parents of gifted young players sent their kids hither and yon in a Canadian junior hockey system that worked well for some players, and not so well for others. In 1996, Graham James, a junior coach in Swift River, Saskatchewan, was revealed to have been a child sex predator. (One of his victims was NHL star Theo Fleury, who revealed what James had done to him in an autobiography published in 2009.) When the parents of budding star Eric Lindros refused to let him play for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the entire junior hockey establishment went into conniption fits. These are parents who, for good or ill, have been sending their children to live elsewhere in their country for decades.
(There is some bleak historical harmony in the fact that, in 1986, while Graham James was coaching the team, the Swift Current Broncos lost four players in a bus crash while traveling to a game in Regina. One of the survivors was Hall of Famer Joe Sakic.)
They are called “billet families,” the families who take in junior players who come to their cities and towns to play. So when the two vehicles collided at Armley Corner, there were two sets of families who lost great pieces of themselves. The Cannons, for example, were the billet family for two of the players who died in the wreck. (The third of their billet players, Xavier Labelle, was mistakenly reported to have died in the crash.) As Rene Cannon told the CBC:
The Crazy Cannon Clan, as her family calls themselves, have been been billeting players with the Humboldt Broncos for the past five years, an experience she calls unlike any other. "We aren't built to not get attached. We take every single boy that's ever come into our house right into our hearts and into our family," she said. "They're children of our heart from the moment they walk in our door. We don't just feed them and house them, we care about them."
Sudden death in a small place always rings a louder note. The fewer the people, the tighter the chords of memory and experience that bind them, and the more deeply resonant is the grief. It was that way in Newtown, Connecticut, after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was that way in the small towns in Texas, after Hurricane Harvey blew through on its way to Houston. It is that way in Humboldt now, and it will be for a very long time. But there is hockey, which is an international sport in its business, but still very much a welcoming small town in the connections it creates between the people who play it, and the people who watch it. You could see that great enfolding spirit at work all weekend, from all corners of two countries, who have been very good neighbors for a very long time. Canada shared hockey with us, billeting us in that remarkable community of affection that begins in places like Humboldt, in Saskatchewan, where the winds of late spring can grow colder in an instant, and where an enfolding spirit is something against the gust and the chill of so much lost promise, scattered across a small stretch of wide prairie, under the infinite sky, so many little things that will not happen now to so many young men. And that song about the game they played, drifting from the radio, unheard…
…You'll have that scar on your chin forever you know/Looks bad now, but someday your girlfriend will say "Hey, what...?"/You might look out the window.../ Or not,