On Friday, April 6, near Armley, Saskatchewan, one of the most tragic events in Canadian sports history occurred when 15 people were killed in a bus accident. Of the 15 fatalities, 10 were hockey players for the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (the others were two Broncos coaches, the bus driver, the statistician and the broadcaster). It is the deadliest vehicle accident in Canadian history involving a sports team.
On Monday, one of the Broncos most notable alumni spoke to the Independent Sports News. Grant Jennings, a native of Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan, played the 1982-83 season with the Broncos before going on to play 10 seasons in the National Hockey League with the Washington Capitals, Hartford Whalers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres. During his time with the Penguins, the defenseman won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992.
Over the last few days, Jennings has reflected back to his time in Humboldt. Even though he spent only one season playing for the Broncos, the memories of his single season in the SJHL remain prominent and positive.
“I went to high school while I was there. At that age, Humboldt was a big part of my life. Now a days, three years can go by, and you don’t remember much. But when you are 17 years old and playing junior hockey for the first time in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, you remember that for sure. The people were so nice. You didn’t have people in the stands swearing or heckling. The fans knew the game. They were hard working, farm people, who paid money to watch you play. They were never negative.”
The community support for the Broncos in Humboldt is extremely strong.
“A lot of the businesses and billets are involved with the team. The town circles around that team from every September to April.”
There is no doubt that the interview with Jennings was difficult. Jennings was still trying to process everything that happened and stated he was facing challenges expressing his thoughts in general terms.
Jennings currently works in Alaska as an aircraft mechanic. He was notified of the bus crash from his sister who lives in Whitehorse.
“I was monitoring it on social media,” states Jennings. “The news just kept getting worse. It was a shock to me. The next day was a tough day for even me too. I shed tears just like everybody else.”
Jennings and his sister are family friends of the father of victim Jacob Leicht, a 19 year-old left winger for the Broncos. Jennings also had a connection to victim Jaxon Joseph, a Broncos center. Jennings played against Jaxon’s father Chris when Grant played on the Penguins in 1994-95.
“He (Chris) had been in contact with me last year because his son Jaxon was playing in Melfort,” says Jennings. “Melfort is my home town and is where my mom still lives.”
Jennings will be returning to Saskatchewan on April 18. He wants to get back to see if he can help in any way possible. Jennings would like to visit some of the players in hospital.
“When I drive back to Melfort to see my mother, I go through Humboldt sometimes just for the drive. Now I have another reason. I am going to see if I can meet with the Broncos president and volunteer my time. I still have a cabin in northern Saskatchewan, and I go back every month from April to October.”
Jennings is also very familiar with the route the bus took near Armley.
“I did that drive the bus was on last year. My family and I took my dad’s ashes to his parents’ grave site near Nipawin. I did that same route.”
Jennings has two sons, Harrison and Gordon. Both of his children played hockey, and Gordon, who is 11 years old, still plays. As a father, the accident also impacted Jennings.
“It makes you think,” says Jennings. “It doesn’t matter if you are a hockey player or not. It affects you. It has affected so many people. It will take a while for the negative to become a positive. I am sure that is what will happen.”
On the weekend Jennings spoke to Gordon about the accident. He had difficulty answering all of his questions.
“I didn’t have definitive answers for him, such as the why and how stuff like that happens,” said Jennings. “The Reverend couldn’t even explain it at the service. I did my best with an 11 year old.”
Every summer Jennings takes his son to Saskatchewan and this year plans to take him to Humboldt for the first time. Gordon has seen his Broncos jersey framed at his cabin.
As a father, Jennings responds to the question of what he would tell the parents of the victims if he had the chance. Prior to responding to the question, Jennings takes a deep breath.
“That’s a tough one (question to answer),” explains Jennings. “As a parent, I just think about what my dad would have thought while I was playing, and being an up and comer. You don’t know how far the kids are going to go, how good they are. I don’t know. I don’t think hockey comes into it too much when you are dealing with the death of someone’s child.”
Looking back further to his season with the Broncos, Jennings discusses the bus rides he and his teammates frequently had to take from small town to small town throughout the entire province of Saskatchewan.
“Dark and cold,” Jennings recalls. “It is not like the NHL and the trainers take your equipment to the rink. When you get back from playing a road game, you have to go back to the (home) rink and unpack your stuff. Sometimes that will be 2 or 3 in the morning, then you have to get up for school the next day. I like driving through the prairies. The kids from B.C. and Alberta always wondered where the mountains were. I always like being on the bus. We had great camaraderie. You make friendships for life on that bus. I rode the bus since I was 14 years old. It is pretty hard to fathom what happened (to the Broncos) and it is tough to talk about for sure.”
Also with the Broncos in 1982-83, Jennings remembers playing in the SJHL All-Star Game. Due to the fact it was the first year the Broncos were playing in the Elgar Petersen Arena, Humboldt played the SJHL All-Stars, and Jennings remembers how frustrating he was, having to play a league all-star team in the game.
There was also one person from that season with the Broncos that Jennings has fond memories of and that was Elgar Petersen, who was the person the Humboldt hockey arena was named after. Petersen was the Broncos equipment manager and trainer, and Jennings remembers Petersen’s five o’clock shadow. In 2013, Petersen received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his outstanding contributions to the Broncos’ organization.
In addition to playing for the Humboldt Broncos, Jennings also played high performance hockey in Saskatchewan with the Notre Dame Hounds in Midget AAA and the Saskatoon Blades in the Western Hockey League. While with the Hounds, Jennings played with future NHL players Russ Courtnall, Wendel Clark and Bob Joyce. Clark and Jennings would be teammates again with the Blades from 1983 to 1985. Other notable teammates Jennings had with the Blades were Joey Kocur, Trent Yawney and Todd McLellan.
A year after his time with the Blades, another bus crash hit Saskatchewan. Four players from the Swift Current Broncos died on December 30, 1986.
“I had met one of the players that died in the accident,” remembers Jennings. “Chris Mantyka of Saskatoon was a tough guy (328 penalty minutes in only 26 games with the North Battleford North Stars in 1985-86) and watched me play while growing up for the Blades in Saskatoon. This was a horrible story the hockey world heard also. We are big, strong and tough, but invincible is something we are not. The Humboldt tragedy hits closer to home for me because of my history with the Broncos. I am proud to say I was a Humboldt Bronco and a tough one at that.”
In conclusion, Jennings still highly recommends the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
“Of course,” states Jennings. “It is one of the best tier two junior leagues in the world. It is where top colleges are picking from. The universities close to where I work, the University of Alaska-Anchorage and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, have players from Saskatchewan. They pick from the SJHL to play Division I. It’s where I got my start. The organization (Humboldt Broncos) is great. My teammates were great. I have nothing but kudos to say about the SJHL.”