Why did the Humboldt hockey bus crash become a national tragedy?

I don’t know, but it brought to mind other lists of young men who died before their time


The death last week of 14 members of a Humboldt, Saskatchewan Junior hockey team in a bus-truck highway collision struck the entire country with unusual force. Memorials echoed in all ten provinces with flags flying at half mast in many, with shock and a note of seeming despair on open line shows. Nationwide, there came commiserations and pity of undeniable sincerity for all involved. This went on for the whole of the following week. But why, exactly? If it had been, say, 14 dead in an airplane crash, would the effect have been that pronounced and that prolonged? I don’t think so. It seemed there was something special about this. What was it?

Hockey perhaps. It has been accurately called “the national religion,” noted journalist Alan Hustak, late of the Montreal Gazette and Alberta Report. He wrote a touching comment on the accident, published in Convivium magazine. A Saskatchewan boy, he’d returned in retirement to his native province, and he plainly shared personally in the provincial sorrow. Shared in it, but did not try to explain its universality.

The “hockey” explanation is worth exploring. Would the response have been so wide if it had been a girls’ volleyball team, or a high school football team? I think not. Hockey is still special in Canada. Since it has gained such wide adherence and celebrity in the United States, we’re continually threatened with losing it, like so much else, to the Americans. Not in places like Humboldt, Saskatchewan, however, and the “tininess” of the town made the tragedy seem worse. (By Saskatchewan standards, Humboldt, home of the ill-fated Broncos, with just under 6,000 residents, is not all that tiny.)

I suspect, however, that it has more to do with kids and buses than it has to do with hockey. I drive my grandchildren to school every morning, a distance of about three miles, and they would sometimes play a game to see who could count the most buses At one point they got up around ten, of which two were transit buses, the rest school buses. Accidents are less fatal on city streets because the traffic is slower, but one is still very conscious of the danger to children’s lives when for an hour every weekday morning and an hour every afternoon, tens of thousands of kids are at risk on buses. If a heavy truck hit one of them, the thought of the possible result was unnerving. Now this had happened.

But even with 14 dead, the Saskatchewan accident did not quite equal Alberta’s worst schoolbus disaster. It occurred in November, 1960, near Lamont, 45 miles northeast of Edmonton, where a crowded school bus was hit by a 27-car freight train travelling at 50 miles an hour. The death toll was 16. It was widely regretted, deplored, the dead mourned, the families commiserated with, but it did not become a national tragedy in the way that the Humboldt accident did, where even prime minister attended the funeral.

Now if it wasn’t hockey and it wasn’t the relative youth of the victims, what turned the tragedy of the Humboldt Broncos into a national calamity? My guess is no better than anybody else’s, though it did bring sharply to my memory the month of April 1945. I was 16 years old, and every morning for the entire month I remember looking at a little box that appeared daily on the front page of the Globe and Mail newspaper. It gave the number of Canadians reported killed in action in the prior 24 hours. I don’t remember the specifics. but from memory the daily toll often exceeded 200. Almost all the victims were young men, some barely beyond boyhood.

Yes, there was certainly sorrow, particularly for the mothers and fathers who had lost sons, the children who had lost fathers, the wives who had lost husbands. Families watched in terror for the appearance of the telegraph boy, bearing the dreaded news. I became part of this once. Housing was so short in wartime cities that homeowners were enjoined to rent out any empty rooms. We had a widow living in my grandmother’s house whose son was training as an American fighter pilot.

When a telegraph boy brought a message to the door, I brought it up to her room. She opened it anxiously, read it, groaned in agony and collapsed on the bed sobbing. The telegram lay open on the bed beside her. To this day, I remember its six-word message: “Barry killed. Canal Zone. Letter follows.”
The telegram was from her daughter-in-law. I didn’t know what to do, and I still don’t in such circumstances. I patted her on the shoulder and ran to get my recently widowed grandmother. Scenes such as this doubtless occurred at least 14 times last week at Humboldt. Saskatchewan. It is part of the human lot to receive such things.

But along with this in those concluding days of the Second World War, there was also a sense of jubilation. For these battles then raging were being fought within Germany. One after the other, we were winning them. The long horror of war was almost over, and through the skill, determination and raw valour of the men whose names were among those hundreds, we were about to win. In short, there had been a purpose—a very real and profound purpose—for their death.

But how does this relate to those who died on that bus near Humboldt? There was one possible way. I had the feeling—nothing more, nothing I could in any way prove or verify—that the kind of men who were on that bus were the kind of men who were on those casualty lists. I think that both groups will probably wind up in Heaven. But of course, that’s only my Christian bigotry showing.

Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century, a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered. You can order both copies here.

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