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 Daily Courier - - FRONT PAGE - By LARRY FISHER

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.”

MARISSA BAECKER/ Shoot­the­breeze.ca

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.

Gar­diner

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