A Town That Lives for Hockey Is Devastated by Humboldt Broncos’ Deaths

A memorial at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home to the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team, in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, on Sunday.

HUMBOLDT, Saskatchewan — Update: An earlier version of this article, relying on incorrect information from the Office of the Chief Coroner of Saskatchewan, misidentified one of the victims killed in the crash. He was Parker Tobin, not Xavier Labelle.

For nearly 50 years, teenage boys from across Western Canada have left their families and friends to live with strangers and play hockey for the Broncos in Humboldt, a small town whose passion for the sport stands out — even by Canadian standards.

Despite a local fan base that tops out at about 5,000, the Broncos play in an arena that rivals those used by professional teams. Some of the coaches are paid, but the team relies on an army of volunteers to function, and local boosters — a large percentage of the town’s population — somehow find a way to fund what amounts to an almost major-league-level, year-round operation.

On Friday, that intimate relationship between the town and the team was brutally shattered when the Broncos’ bus, headed for a playoff game, collided with a tractor-trailer truck, killing 15 — 10 players, two coaches, the team statistician, the team radio announcer and the bus driver. Another 14 were injured.

Adding to the anguish, early on Monday the office of Saskatchewan’s chief coroner said that in identifying the victims, it had mistaken two teammates for each other.

Xavier Labelle, a defenseman from Saskatoon who had been listed as dead, is alive, the coroner’s office said in a statement. No information was immediately offered about his medical condition. Parker Tobin, the team’s goalie, was killed in the crash, the statement said.

(Fifteen lives devoted to hockey: Here’s a look at the victims.)

While the anguish from the loss is most intense in Humboldt, the accident resonated across Western Canada, and all the country, where numerous small towns provide the next step up hockey’s ladder for promising junior players.

At St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church, a few blocks from the arena where the Broncos played, a pancake breakfast on Sunday morning turned into a fund-raiser for the families of the dead and the injured survivors.

Most of the people in the long line donated much more than the suggested 7 Canadian dollars, or $5.50, for the buffet to Ruth and Bob Kienlen, who were managing the cash box at the door. The retired couple, like many in this community, once billeted members of the Broncos.

“Our life was lived around hockey when we were hosts,” said Ms. Kienlen, whose three children were young when the family hosted players in their homes. “We had a player who was just 15 years old. Imagine that: just 15 years old. But he needed parents. We didn’t know how to parent teenagers then, but it worked.”

The custom of players’ living with local families means the deaths double the number of parents affected. In a new subdivision behind Humboldt’s hospital, Devin and Rene Cannon were hosts to two players killed in the crash: Logan Hunter, 18, and Adam Herold, whose 17th birthday would have been on Thursday.

“We aren’t built to not get attached,” Ms. Cannon told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “We take every single boy that’s ever come into our house right into our hearts and into our family.”

She added: “They’re children of our heart from the moment they walk in our door. We don’t just feed them and house them, we care about them.”

Now, Ms. Cannon said, “We feel like our hearts have been splintered. There are three people in our lives we will never get to hold and hug and tell them to go kick some butt on the ice ever again.”

The outsize role the team plays in Humboldt was obvious even on the outskirts of town, where a large sign on the highway at the Humboldt exit called for prayers for the team. On the main street — named Glenn Hall Drive, after the hometown hero, a goalie who went on to the National Hockey League, winning two Stanley Cups — gold, green and white Broncos jerseys hung behind counters in shops, restaurants and hotels. It seemed almost everyone in town was wearing green lapel ribbons to honor the team.

The Humboldt arena has a capacity of 1,854 — a seat for every 2.6 residents, given the town’s official population. Yet during playoff games, like the two held against the Nipawin Hawks this past week, the arena is so full of spectators that it’s standing room only.

“It’s amazing that any of these small towns can do junior hockey teams,” said Dean Brockman, a former Broncos head coach. His successor, Darcy Haugan, was among those who died in the crash. “It’s a full-time, 12-months-a-year fund-raiser to keep the team afloat. It’s a very intimate relationship. Now it’s a very, very tragic time.”

The town was in a daze on Sunday as preparations were underway at the Elgar Petersen Arena for a vigil to remember the dead, instead of what had been scheduled for the evening: the sixth game of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the memorial service.

While junior hockey players are not paid, the competition to join top teams like the Broncos is intense and involves recruiting, networking and even a draft.

The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League is one of 10 such Junior A leagues spread across Canada, the elite amateur tier for players 16 to 21. Its most skilled players aspire to one of the country’s major-junior leagues, where the players are paid and the teams act as development squads for N.H.L. teams.

Saskatchewan has a history of producing a disproportionate number of N.H.L. players relative to its population of 1.1 million. Currently, 31 active N.H.L. players come from the province.

But Mr. Brockman, the former coach, said that whatever dreams of N.H.L. glory the young players harbor, their practical objective is generally to attract a hockey scholarship from a Canadian university or an American college.

On top of a heavy training and game schedule, the younger players on the Broncos attended the local high school, which is part of a municipal complex that includes the arena, meeting halls and a curling rink. Many of the older players took University of Saskatchewan extension courses at a community college.

The Broncos have an annual budget of about $700,000, and the team and the town come with up with novel approaches to raising money.

One year, the team ran a lottery for a new combine harvester, a piece of farm equipment worth several hundred thousand dollars. And a group of local farmers have set aside 160 acres for the team and turn over the proceeds of the grain it yields to the Broncos.

The collision has prompted a national, and global, outpouring of support. A GoFundMe campaign for the team was nearing its goal of 4 million Canadian dollars, or $3.1 million, by late Sunday afternoon.

Not all of the victims were players. The injured included a team trainer, and the dead included Tyler Bieber, 29, who did the play-by-play announcing for the Broncos’ radio broadcasts.

The death of Brody Hinz, the team’s statistician, particularly stung at Westminster United Church, where he was long an active member of the congregation. He was about to graduate from high school; Mr. Hinz’s father died from cancer when the son was just 5, the Rev. Brenda Curtis said.

“He was just crazy about all sports,” said Molly Salmon, a classmate at Humboldt Collegiate Institute. “He just knew everything about anything you could ask. The school’s absolutely devastated at what happened.”

Minister Curtis, who has spent much of her time since Friday with Mr. Hinz’s mother and younger sister, was similarly at a loss.

“He had so much potential, it’s just been painful for all of us,” she said after Sunday’s service. “And that’s just one story out of 15 stories of people who have pain because they lost their loved ones and they all have stories of their uniqueness and their potential. And it’s gone, it’s gone in an instant. I’m a minister, but I’m still damned angry.”

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