Before he signed with the Washington Capitals and began to enjoy the glamour of the NHL, Chandler Stephenson was a typical Canadian hockey prospect who created his best memories in two places: on the ice and on the bus, which would ferry Stephenson and his teammates from town to town so they could chase their dreams.
“It’s kind of your second home,” a somber Stephenson said in the Capitals’ dressing room Saturday morning, less than 12 hours after he found out that a bus carrying a junior team in Canada had crashed, killing 15.
The team, the Humboldt Broncos, is based about an hour from Stephenson’s home town of Saskatoon; he was acquainted with three of the players. He wasn’t sure of their condition, but Stephenson said one of the players had to be airlifted from the scene with a fractured skull.
“Kind of at a loss for words. Couldn’t really believe that something like that could happen. You’re on the bus for hours,” Stephenson said.
Washington’s players were still trying to process Friday night’s accident as they returned to practice Saturday morning. Preparations for that night’s regular season finale against New Jersey were an afterthought during the session. Scores of players reflected on their roots, including Stephenson, Brett Connolly and Braden Holtby, all of whom played junior hockey close to Humboldt.
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz, who played junior hockey in Saskatchewan decades ago, opened his meeting with reporters not by addressing his roster or its impending playoff run, but rather the tragedy that rocked Canada and the NHL, which is made up of a majority of Canadian players.
“The players come from all over, especially in Canada. … They’re from all over Western Canada. They come and play in a small town, and you’re embraced by a small town, and you’re the pride of a small town, and you’re chasing a dream,” Trotz said. “It does hit a little bit home.”
Details from the crash were still emerging as Washington’s players prepared for Saturday’s practice. Connolly tweeted for the first time since January, sending out his condolences to a community that is about 20 hours from his home town in northern British Columbia.
Connolly wondered what had happened and how safe he used to feel on buses while traveling in his junior days with the Prince George Cougars. The road conditions were often challenging, and the glare of the sun on Western Canada’s plains could be treacherous, yet Connolly and his teammates never thought anything could happen. They instead bonded over card games, movies and music while they traveled hours from town to town.
“It hits home for a lot of guys. … Part of everybody’s junior career, you’re on a bus a lot. That’s kind of your safe spot,” said Connolly, who played junior hockey in Saskatchewan. “That’s where you grow friendships. It’s crazy. It doesn’t make any sense how that can happen.”
Stephenson tuned into a Canadian radio station to listen to Humboldt’s mayor address the community of 5,869 on Friday night, when citizens were invited to the rink and to a church to grieve together. A number of Stephenson’s close friends are from his junior days, he said, relationships that were strengthened by travel and community support. He couldn’t fathom the loss.
“Especially a place like Humboldt. It’s just a city. To be qualified as a city, I think it’s five or ten thousand people,” he said. “The Broncos were their everything.”