Every so often, whether it’s here in the city the Edmonton Oilers call home or elsewhere, we are reminded that hockey, a pursuit so many people are passionate about, is just a game. No matter how greatly it stirs the emotions, which is one of its endearing qualities and speaks to our emotional investment, it isn’t as important as we make it out to be when we’re caught up in it.
Today and tomorrow we might want to take a moment to contemplate that. Today is the 17th anniversary of 9-11-2001, the day two jets were flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York as the world watched in horror, killing thousands of people. Among them, former Oiler player, coach and scout Garnet (Ace) Bailey and Mark Bavis, who were working as scouts for the Los Angeles Kings at that time. They were on one of those planes.
Tomorrow, the Humboldt Broncos will take to the ice at Elgar Petersen Arena against the Nipawin Hawks to open their 2018-19 SJHL season in their first game since 16 members of their team were killed in a bus wreck last April — what seems like just a heartbeat ago. Four of the young men lost, Conner Lukan, Jaxon Joseph, Logan Hunter and Stephen Wack, played hockey or lived in St. Albert, our own backyard.
Their friends, family and loved ones still ache in a way that is difficult to comprehend, just as those who lost mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, grandparents and friends on the planes, in the towers and among first responders 17 years ago do, even with the time that has passed. Beyond our basic humanity, there’s an extended hockey family that aches for them too. Hockey has connected us.
For me, the game of hockey has always been about the people involved in it, the relationships and friendships that come from it, memories made along the way. Some of those memories are about winning and losing of course, but the vast majority of mine are about the time spent together, sharing a laugh, riding the bus, practical jokes, sitting around and talking about everything but the game itself. Real life.
I can’t tell you much about Ace’s stats as a player or his coaching record in Wichita off the top of my head. I can tell you he was a fun-loving man with a smile that lit up the room in the five years I was lucky enough to see him in the Oilers dressing room and in rinks around the NHL after I arrived in Edmonton in 1989.
I didn’t know Jaxon Joseph, one of the hometown boys we lost, but I’ve known his dad, Chris, since I watched him play in the WHL with the Seattle Thunderbirds in the 1980s. There are connections like that for so many people not involved directly in what happens on the ice. They are the ties that bind us when unspeakable events like New York and the Humboldt crash turn things upside down.
The cliché is that events like this lend perspective and remind us about what really matters. I suppose that’s true. With the eve of another hockey season upon us, we’ll be caught up in the game and what happens out on the ice in rinks right across the country soon enough. The game goes on. Remember them.