We pulled into the old pitch-black Winnipeg Arena around 2 a.m. half asleep but instantly rejuvenated at the sight of ice.
Sniper Harry Mahood, a Winnipeg product, was especially excited at playing for the Nanaimo Islanders in front of family and friends. He and I grabbed a stick, and using light from the tunnel where the bus was parked, passed the puck around. Goalie Pokey Reddick, who later made the NHL, rubbed the sleep from his eyes and joined us for a few minutes.
I made a point of slowly walking up the steep stairs to the press box for a closer peak at the gigantic photo of the Queen.
This was the fall of 1982 and my first experience at a prairie junior hockey road trip. I was the colour analyst for the CHUB Radio broadcast team, led by play-by-play man Dick Getz, a Penticton native. I was also sports editor for the Nanaimo Daily Free Press. I was 25, but felt like a kid riding Space Mountain at Disneyland for the first time.
Bill Zeitlin of Detroit owned the WHL Isles, shifting them from Billings, Montana for that season. The veteran players like Mahood, Regina 76-goal superstar Jim McGeough and Surrey’s Bob Rouse were expecting a long grinding bus ride to play the expansion Prince Albert Raiders, Saskatoon Blades, Regina Pats, Brandon Wheat Kings and Winnipeg Warriors.
Zeitlin, a minority owner of the Chicago White Sox, surprised everybody by scheduling a flight from Vancouver to Saskatoon, where GM Les Calder had arranged to borrow the Brandon bus for the road miles.
Some of the windows didn’t close on what was back then affectionately known as the Iron Lung. There were a few bunks but they were hardly comfy like some of today’s hotels on wheels. The bus looked like it only had a few miles left, but nobody was complaining.
In Junior hockey, the bus is the team’s sanctuary. You can be yourself, take loads of razzing, and while you are inches away from your seat mate, really get to know the guy beside you. Rouse, one of the most feared fighters in the WHL, was among the quietest guys on the bus. He also made the NHL. Others like Mahood, who talked hockey in his sleep, were more vocal.
The Detroit rookies like Alfie Turcotte, a Habs’ first-round pick the next summer, and John LaFontaine, also said little, and as was the custom back then, carried the veterans’ equipment bag into each rink.
Despite the rickety Wheaties’ bus, I felt safe. I never once thought: ‘What if we crash?’
I sat next to Calder, a beauty from Saskatchewan who wore cowboy boots and talked with somewhat of a Southern drawl. Les played two years of Junior hockey for the Melville Millionaires and then spent 15 years in the minor Bus Leagues. He was unfazed by the shape of the Brandon bus. I never got any sleep on that bus trip, but I got to know Calder well.
And I know the players formed lifetime friendships on that trek. Our bus rides to Victoria, Portland and Seattle seemed like a Sunday stroll compared to that prairie expedition.
I tell this story to perhaps give some a sense of why the Humboldt Broncos bus crash has brought our great hockey nation closer and caused so many tears.
There aren’t many duds or bad apples, as they are called, in the Junior hockey fraternity. These young men were cherished and loved by everybody in Humboldt. They also loved one another like family. The players killed in the Tisdale crash will be forever remembered and enshrined in some way by the team, just like Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Chris Mantyka and Brent Ruff of the Swift Current Broncos were after a 1986 bus accident.
Those four were sitting at back of the bus when it hit a patch of black ice, struck an embankment and landed on its side. Those four, like the Humboldt Broncos, were enjoying the company of their teammates and loving life as a Junior hockey player.
This Humboldt tragedy is another example of just how precious life is, and how quickly and harshly it can be snuffed out. Be strong Bronco families, friends and fans.