April 12, 2018
by Darren Zary, Saskatoon StarPhoenix
A decision has been made to play on.
The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League voted Wednesday to continue with playoffs and play out the remainder of the season.
That decision came five days after a bus crash involving the SJHL’s Humboldt Broncos has left 16 people dead, and three more in critical condition, among 29 passengers on the team’s bus.
“The power of healing,” said SJHL president Bill Chow, “is in the game.”
The Nipawin Hawks — who led the Humboldt Broncos three games to one in their best-of-seven SJHL semifinal playoff series prior to Friday’s bus crash — will meet the Estevan Bruins in a best-of-seven Canalta Cup league championship final series.
“It was unanimous,” said Chow, “to carry on.”
Game 1 will be played Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in Nipawin. Game 2 will go Sunday night in Nipawin before the series shifts to Estevan for Game 3 and 4 next Tuesday and Wednesday.
“We had everybody on board,” added Chow. “We made sure we talked to a lot of people in Humboldt and that Humboldt had their say. Everybody had their say as to what they thought and think, and everything they had to express. It was absolutely 100 per cent endorsed to carry on.”
When asked about the league’s continuance this season, Nipawin head coach and general manager Doug Johnson said simply, “We need to play.”
The Hawks practiced Wednesday for only the second time since Friday’s tragedy.
“It’s the only decision,” added Johnson. “We didn’t have a choice, in my mind.”
Johnson admits his players were hit hard by the tragedy, but it will be best to march on.
“Some are good, some are bad. When they went home (for the weekend), the travel to get home and the stress, a lot of them are dealing with colds and stuff like that now but, mentally, they get better every day.”
The Broncos’ bus crash took place Friday around 5 p.m. on Highway 35, in the middle of a 60-kilometre stretch between Tisdale and Nipawin as the Broncos were on their way to Nipawin to play Game 5 of SJHL semifinal series against the Hawks.
Three Broncos players have been released from hospital, including Nick Shumlanski and Matthieu Gomercic, who both attended Sunday’s vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt. The other is Saskatoon’s Brayden Camrud.
The Bruins resumed practicing Monday in anticipation that the league final would still go ahead.
“I agree with it 100 per cent — I don’t think there was any other (decision),” Bruins head coach and general manager Chris Lewgood said Wednesday.
Lewgood added that practising Monday was “the best thing” his team could have done following the weekend tragedy.
He hopes that whatever team that comes out of the SJHL “will go all the way” and won’t “bang each other too much” in the league final.
Despite some wishes from a smattering of fans, there will not be a neutral-site game in Humboldt during the Canalta Cup league championship series.
“Would it be a nice gesture? Absolutely,” said Johnson. “We’re talking about 17-, 18-, 19- and 20-year-old kids that have been through a lot already. Why would we try and put more on them?”
Not only would there be an emotional cost, there would also be a financial cost that neither the Hawks nor Bruins could afford right now in a league strapped financially.
“This isn’t callous, but both Estevan and Nipawin have battled all year to get to this spot,” said Johnson. “Each of these two teams is struggling like hell financially. A home game is $20,000-$40,000 (revenue) and that’s one whole fundraiser and that’s the difference (between losing money or not).”
Scott Thomas — whose son, Broncos forward Evan Thomas, died in the crash — said Wednesday he wants the SJHL playoffs to continue and that Evan would have wanted the games to go on.
“So I hope that they proceed as normal,” Thomas said. “And it won’t be normal. But I hope Estevan and Nipawin have a seven-game series and it comes down to overtime in Game 7, and it’s some of the best hockey that people have ever seen. So that’s my hope for how that plays out.”
The winner of the SJHL championship advances to the Anavet Cup series against the Manitoba Junior Hockey League champion in a best-of-seven series. The winner of that series earns a spot at the Royal Bank Cup national championship.
“In my mind, the longer a team from the SJHL plays,” said Johnson, “the longer, in some ways, the Broncos of 2017-18 stay alive.”
Earlier this week, the SJHL announced that is establishing a SJHL assistance program in the wake of the bus crash tragedy.
The SJHL assistance program will raise funds for all people, both within the Broncos organization and in the other 11 SJHL teams, who are directly and deeply affected by this tragic event.
“The SJHL is overwhelmed with the support for the SJHL assistance program,” said Chow. “This program will aid in providing mental health assistance, counselling and grieving for all the players of the SJHL. Should there be funds available, the extra monies will go into an education program in memory of the lives lost on April 6, 2018.”
The program got kick-started when 44 local Co-ops that are part of Saskatchewan’s Co-operative retailing system, and others across Western Canada, committed $135,000 to support the assistance program. Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) has matched these retail donations for a total of $270,000. While work continues to secure commitments from more retail Co-ops, FCL will continue to match them up to a potential total of $500,000.