SCV Hockey Families
How a Tragedy in Saskatchewan Connects with Locals
May, 2018 - Issue #164
courtesy of Shutterstock
courtesy of Shutterstock

It was a goofy moment of team unity, heading into the playoffs: In an exercise befitting a hockey team consisting of adventurous boys and young men, ages 16 to 21, they all decided to dye their hair blonde before the playoffs began.

They posed for a photo, dressed in their hockey gear except for their helmets, so they could show off those freshly-dyed locks. They wore one other thing in common: confident grins that said they knew in their hearts they were unbeatable and that they were forever bound together.
"My son and his former Flyers teammates will have STORIES TO TELL about those bus trips. The Humboldt Broncos won't have that chance."

It was a picture of the Humboldt Broncos, 2018. And when I saw it, I flashed back to the Valencia Flyers, 2014.

You see, just like this year's Humboldt Broncos, the Valencia Flyers Junior A players all dyed their hair blonde before the playoffs four years ago. I know, because my son Luc, then 18, was on that team. Most of them are in college now and in a few short years they will be going to each other's weddings and reminiscing about the best time of their lives, their years playing junior hockey together.

I suspect many of the stories will revolve around the shenanigans during those long rides on the team bus, as junior teams often travel for 18 hours or more to reach road games in faraway places. My son and his former Flyers teammates will have stories to tell about those bus trips.

The Humboldt Broncos won't have that chance.

Their bus, en route to a playoff semifinal game in Saskatchewan, was T-boned by a tractor-trailer. Of the 29 people on board, 16 were killed, including 10 players, the team's head coach and an assistant coach, the athletic trainer, the bus driver, the statistician and the play-by-play announcer.

The tragedy reverberated across Canada and beyond. NHL teams paid tribute in many ways, including moments of silence, tribute stickers' on players' helmets and green ribbons pinned on coaches' lapels. A GoFundMe campaign to support the victims' families broke records, raising over $12 million.

Anyone who saw the news of the crash and its awful toll would be emotionally affected, just as you would any time you hear of 16 innocent lives cut short. But for those of us in the "hockey community," including the families whose kids have played hockey right here in Santa Clarita, there was an extra layer of impact.

It hit me hard. I couldn't stop thinking about those families and their immeasurable grief. And I could relate to them in a way that's unique among those of us whose kids have toiled in hockey's junior leagues, whether in Canada, where hockey borders on a religious experience, or here in the US, where several different junior leagues have players crisscrossing the country on bus rides to smash into each other on the ice.

Departing from Valencia during my son's three years of junior hockey, the Flyers would visit El Paso, Texas. Boise, Idaho. Phoenix. Las Vegas. Points in between. They're part of the Western States Hockey League, a 23-team circuit with franchises in cities stretching from the West Coast as far east as Wichita, Oklahoma City and Dallas.

Our local team that plays out of Ice Station Valencia usually contains a mixture of local kids who grew up playing hockey in Southern California, many of whom have been friends since elementary school, along with imports from Canada and Europe.

It's not the NHL, so they travel by bus. It's a grueling way to build memories, but that bus is like an extension of the locker room - a team space, protected from the outside world.

I've awakened in the middle of the night while the boys were on an overnight bus ride, more times than I can remember, and checked the GPS tracking on my son's cell phone just to reassure myself that the bus was still safely moving its way through the night.

I can only imagine the sense of dread among those parents of the Humboldt Broncos, when that bus stopped moving.

Shortly after the tragedy, a friend of a Canadian sports broadcaster sent him a text with a photo of a hockey stick on his front porch, and the message, "Leaving it out on the porch tonight. The boys might need it, wherever they are..."

The broadcaster's tweet inspired the hashtag, #putyourstickout, along with the suggestion that we all leave a hockey stick on the front porch for the boys from Humboldt. I went out to my garage, fetched one of my old sticks from the beer league and put it out, leaning against the house, where it's illuminated at night by the porch light.

I imagine that, just as the flags always return to full mast at some point after a national tragedy, sometime I will put the stick away, our humble tribute having been paid. But right now, I still can't. That stick is still on the porch.

Those boys, who were so much like my own son and his Valencia Flyers teammates... they might need it.
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