Kelowna Rocket mourns loss of former teammates in Broncos bus crash
19-year-old lost former teammates and coach in the tragic bus crash
The Humboldt Broncos’ bus crash and devastation hit home for a lot of people. Erik Gardiner more so than most. Hailing from Humboldt, the recently turned 19-year-old was playing for his hometown Broncos to start last season when his WHL rights were traded from Regina to Kelowna on Nov. 30, 2016, resulting in a call-up to the Rockets just before the Christmas break.
Turnover is inevitable in junior hockey, but his connections to this year’s Broncos — and to the April 6 crash that killed 16 people and injured 13 others — run deep and truly tug at the heartstrings.
Speaking to media for the first time on Monday evening — 10 days following the tragic accident — Gardiner managed to hold back tears in going down the list of those lost.
It started with three of his former teammates from last year’s Broncos in Logan Schatz, the 20-year-old captain of this year’s team; Logan Boulet, a 21-year-old defenceman who has been hailed a hero for donating his organs to save the lives of six others; and Stephen Wack, another 21-year-old defender.
“Schatz was one of my best friends when I was playing for the Broncos here. A guy that I grew up with billeted him at his house, so I was over there most days hanging out,” said Gardiner. “That was really a tough one to hear, just because we had such a strong relationship.”
Asked about Boulet, he said: “that was another tough one. He actually lived down the street from me, so we drove together every day to practice and games and stuff.”
And with “Wacker” — as Gardiner affectionately called him by his nickname: “He was just one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. So kind and so caring about everybody. I knew his billet brothers pretty well and I know it was tough on them, and tough on the whole community again.”
A fourth victim, 19-year-old left-winger Jacob Leicht, was a teammate of Gardiner’s throughout minor hockey as a fellow Humboldt product. Their bond went well beyond the rink.
“He was one of my best friends growing up,” said Gardiner. “That was probably the toughest one for me, just because I knew him my whole life and our families are really good friends here. I graduated with him and did all the things that high school kids do together.”
The support staff was also much the same as last season, with the Broncos losing head coach and general manager Darcy Haugan (42), play-by-play broadcaster Tyler Bieber (29), statistician Brody Hinz (18), athletic therapist Dayna Brons (24) and bus driver Glen Doerksen (59) — all who were there during Gardiner’s stint, and while he was growing up in the prairie community with a population just under 6,000 people.
Again, the human element comes into play. Gardiner’s father, Shaun, is the vice-principal at the only high school in town (Humboldt Collegiate Institute) as well as the head coach of the football team there, while his mother, Karla, is a special education teacher.
A majority of the Broncos’ players, including other victims, have been taught and mentored by Gardiner’s parents.
Bieber served as the trainer for the football team and Hinz was like an extended family member.
“I went to high school and elementary school with Brody, and my mom was a big part of his life through special education. I know that was really hard on our family, losing him,” said Gardiner, noting Hinz was around the dressing room more last season as an assistant to Brons before shifting his focus to stats, alongside Bieber in the broadcast booth this season.
Gardiner spoke glowingly of his relationships with each of them, also highlighting his former coach.
“I have nothing but positive things to say about (Haugan). He was a great guy and really strong in his faith. He was really kind to everybody and he was a players’ coach for sure. All the guys liked him and enjoyed his practices, and the community will miss him for sure.”
Gardiner has attended four funerals over the past week for Bieber, Haugan, Schatz and Leicht, and has been in the Honour Guard for the latter three.
“I haven’t spoke at them, but I’ve been on the ice for them,” he said. “We walk in front of the casket and we sit down on the ice with the families, with the closer friends and the teammates.
“That was good for a lot of the guys that played with Jacob and Logan (Schatz),” added Gardiner. “It was nice to get some closure at the funerals, it was a really good funeral for Jacob (on Friday).”
Gardiner has also made two trips from Humboldt to Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon — on the Sunday following the crash and again this past Tuesday — to spend time with the survivors, including two more of his teammates from last year in 18-yearold defenceman Xavier Labelle, who was initially misidentified as a casualty, and 19-year-old forward Brayden Camrud, who is one of three players to have since been released from hospital and who plans to continue his hockey career upon recovering from his injuries.
Gardiner said he also knew a few of the other players — through hockey circles — that are still hospitalized, naming off Jacob Wassermann, Morgan Gobeil and Layne Matechuk.
“On Tuesday, I got to go in and see some of them and they look better than they did for sure,” he said.
Gardiner also got to watch them all in action, attending their final playoff game prior to the crash — a crushing 6-5 triple-overtime defeat on home ice at the Elgar Petersen Arena on Wednesday, April 4.
The Rockets were eliminated from the WHL playoffs on Thursday, March 29 — swept in the first round by the Tri-City Americans — and Gardiner made it home to Humboldt in time to check up on his former team.
“Game 3 I didn’t make it to, but dad and I listened to it on the way back from Kelowna,” he said of Humboldt’s 2-1 win on Tuesday, April 3. “I was there for Game 4 and it was a pretty crazy game, but they couldn’t pull it off.”
The Broncos also lost their third-round opener in double overtime as the Nipawin Hawks pulled ahead 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. Humboldt was on its way back to Nipawin to face elimination in Game 5 when the team bus collided with a semi tractor-trailer at an intersection near Tisdale, Sask.
Gardiner said he was at home with his parents at the time of the crash, and that they found out through phone calls and continued updates over the course of the night.
In the days that have followed, Gardiner couldn’t help but think he could have been on that bus.
“Probably every day . . . just being so thankful for getting traded to Kelowna because, if not, there’s a good possibility I could have been,” he said. “I’m trying to get that out of my head, but it’s hard. I know a lot of guys felt that way at the vigil and the funerals — guys that have been traded or moved up in the ranks from Humboldt over the past couple years.
“With junior hockey, everybody knows what the bus is all about . . . and now I’m sure this will be a lot more on our minds.”
It is often said that the hockey world is a small world — and everybody seems to have some distant attachment to this tragedy — but Gardiner says that cliché couldn’t be more true.
“It’s been a long week or so,” Gardiner understated to start the conversation, “but the community has really come together, and the country has really come together to support us and support the team.”
From the Go Fund Me in support of the Broncos surpassing $12 million on Monday to the vigil held at Prospera Place this past Thursday attracting more than 500 people, Gardiner said Humboldt is grateful beyond words.
“It’s unbelievable, honestly,” he said. “To see the support from NHL players and guys like Don Cherry and then the Prime Minister (Justin Trudeau). That was pretty amazing for them to come help us through this tough time.
“It has definitely helped the guys in the hospital a lot, just getting through what they’re going through right now,” he added. “And for (country music singer) Paul Brandt to come to some of the funerals and sing, that helped a lot of people out and helped the parents out.”
Gardiner said the Rockets’ organization — from owner Bruce Hamilton to head coach Jason Smith and the rest of their staffs — have been there every step of the way as well.
“All the coaches give me a shout or a text every day, to see how I’m doing and how my family is doing and how the community is doing,” he said. “They have been a part of hockey for years, so I think they kind of know what it’s all about. I think it hits home for them a little bit too, and they have been huge for me and my family.”
Gardiner billets with family members in Kelowna — his aunt and uncle, Shauna and Sheldon Gardiner — and they have been informing him of the outpouring here, from the vigil that they attended to the amount of hockey sticks left out in front of doors.
“The support from Kelowna has been awesome too, with the vigil they had and the releasing of the balloons,” said Gardiner. “That was really nice to see from the Rockets and pretty uplifting, just to see that they are standing behind me and (older brother) Reid and the community here.”
Gardiner plans on returning to Kelowna this fall for his third season with the Rockets and hopes to honour his fallen friends. He already has a special tribute in mind.
“I’ve thought about potentially switching my number to 11 (from No. 12) to honour Jacob Leicht,” he said. “That would be one of my main focuses, to get that done. And getting the guys to wear a Bronco logo on their helmet would be a nice touch.
“I’m just going to play for them and keep them in my thoughts every day for the rest of my career,” he added. “Just kind of know what you’re playing for and how lucky you are to play.”
There was one more thought that crossed his mind, albeit briefly — staying home and suiting up for the Broncos again next season since Humboldt’s team president has already stated their intent to ice a team for the 2018-19 campaign.
“I’ve considered it,” admitted Gardiner, “but just talking with people, I think I want to keep playing for the Rockets and honouring them through that. . . .
“There will be a lot of guys that are from Humboldt who will want trades back to Humboldt, from different (Junior A) teams. Lots of guys will want to be closer to home, and hopefully the GMs can make that happen for the Broncos and their sake.
“That’s going to be a big step forward when they come out on the ice for next season.”
Brothers Reid, left, and Erik Gardiner were born in Prince Albert but raised in Humboldt, Sask. They played together for the first time in their junior hockey careers during the second half of last season after both were acquired through trades by the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. Reid starred as the team’s playoff MVP, breaking a franchise record for goals in a single post-season, while Erik is expected back this fall for his third season here.