Hockey brings Canadians together, in triumph and tragedy

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COMMENTARY

by Andrew Caddell

The Hill Times
April 11, 2018

OTTAWA—Far from Parliament Hill, partisan debates, and briefing notes, the real Canada works, plays, and lives in small cities, towns, villages, and neighbourhoods; and, for many, hockey is an integral part of their life as Canadians. Its speed, intensity, complexity, and excitement can arouse emotions even the least aggressive among us never knew we had.

We are known as a polite nation, but when the opening whistle blows, our passion knows no bounds. The game reflects so much of who we are as Canadians: a team sport, played in the depths of winter, bringing communities together to play or watch.

For many communities across Canada, the local arena is the social nexus and catalyst; it brings cohesion to the community. Building an arena is a major capital investment, yet far-flung hamlets of a few thousand people will insist on having one, because it serves a purpose: in the cold Canadian winter, people meet and greet there and follow their hometown heroes with profound dedication. And if the players go on to play professionally, their communities share in the reflected glory.

For this reason, the tragedy last week on a lonely road near Tisdale, Sask., hits many of us, especially hockey parents, to the depths of our souls. Parents who have watched their kids playing in cold arenas think soberly about those in Saskatchewan preparing to bury their own.

In our book, The Goal, historian Dave Stubbs and I endeavoured to explain the visceral connection between Canadians and the game, following in the footsteps of Ken Dryden’s classic The Game and Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater.

As part of a promotional campaign for the book, I intended to travel by train across the country this winter and seek out small towns and their connection to hockey. In the end, I put it off until next year, as other things got in the way. Humboldt, an hour and a bit’s drive from Saskatoon, would have been the sort of place to have visited. No longer: anyone seeking stories there from now on will rightly be seen as ghoulish.

As a reporter I saw my fair share of death, but the events in the small town of Chapais in northern Quebec on New Year’s Eve, 1980, were devastating. Nearly 50 people died when a community centre burned. Friends were lost, children were orphaned, hundreds were injured. I spent a week there interviewing survivors whose lives would never be the same again.

So it is bound to be for Humboldt. After the initial grieving period, questions will be asked and answered through a coroner’s inquest. Recommendations will be made on the fatal intersection near Tisdale, as well as on bus travel by sports teams. And as much good as the report will offer, hockey teams will continue to travel by bus in the dead of winter. Because they do not have a choice.

As traumatic as this event has been, the outpouring of empathy by everyone from pro athletes to journalists, from a tearful Mike Babcock, coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s presence at the vigil, has provided some solace. Each family will know the loss of their child, or parent, or loved one, mattered to people they will never meet.

Nonetheless, grief is debilitating, and grace does not come easily. Everyone’s way of dealing with grief differs, but there are common threads.

My son, James, was a reservist, UN peacekeeper, and public servant. He died in 2005 of altitude sickness in Bolivia on a dream trip around the world with his wife. The call from his father-in-law at 5:30 a.m. is seared into my memory, as are the hours after, as I had to tell his mother and stepfather and my other children. Although many years have passed and I appreciate the gift of his life to me and others, I would be lying if I were to say I don’t still miss him. And there are days—his birthday and the day he died—when I shed many tears.

I hope the people of Humboldt, the Broncos team, and the families of those close to the dead find the grace and strength to carry on. In the meantime, we are reminded that in this vast country with such a comparatively small population, in times of crisis we are still one big village, with a hockey rink in the centre of town, and people of all ages who seek to comfort others in a time of need.

Andrew Caddell retired last year from Global Affairs Canada, where he was a senior policy adviser. He previously worked as an adviser to Liberal governments. He is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a principal of QIT Canada. He can be reached at pipson52@hotmail.com.

Image credit: Twitter, @HumboldtBroncos

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