(AFP) — Hockey-mad Canada was in mourning on Saturday after a bus carrying a junior ice hockey team collided with a semi-trailer truck in Saskatchewan province, killing 14 people.
In a country where love of the sport is almost a religion, the crash sparked an outpouring of grief among players and fans on social media, while national political leaders expressed their sympathies.
“We can now confirm 14 people have died as a result of this collision,” the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said in a statement, which did not say how many of the victims were players or coaches of the Humboldt Broncos team.
Of the total 29 people on the team bus, including the driver, 15 were taken to hospital with injuries.
“Three of these people have injuries that are critical in nature,” the RCMP said.
They gave no information about the status of the truck driver.
The team comprises 24 players, all from Canada, with the youngest aged 16 and the oldest 21.
The crash took place at around 5:00 pm (2300 GMT) Friday on Highway 35 about 28 kilometers (18 miles) north of the town of Tisdale, a trading center in an overwhelmingly agricultural region of the western province.
The team was heading north for a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks.
Police gave no indication of the cause, but early Saturday special police investigators were still at the scene, which is roughly 150 kilometers east of Prince Albert City.
The flat prairie around the crash site is covered with snow, traces of which can be seen on the plowed roads.
Canadian media said the collision occurred near the junction with another highway.
The Saskatchewan league is a feeder system for higher levels of hockey, with many graduating to play at US and Canadian colleges and major junior league level, while some go on to the National Hockey League (NHL).
Similar leagues operate throughout the country, their buses a regular feature of the vast country’s highways.
Victims’ families, friends, and supporters of the team gathered at the Nipawin Apostolic Church hall for information and support.
“I’m here to help,” said a sticker on one woman’s blouse.
Another, wearing a Hawks sweatshirt, sat with a handful of others, their heads bowed.
“It is a significant accident; we had a tractor trailer and a bus collide,” RCMP Inspector Ted Monro told a press conference.
The STARS Air Ambulance service said two of its helicopters flew to the scene.
There were a “high volume of incoming trauma cases” at Royal University Hospital and St. Paul’s Hospital, the Saskatchewan Health Authority said on Twitter.
Both hospitals are located in Saskatoon city, about 250 kilometers from the crash site.
– ‘Our boys’ –
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe retweeted a photo of one player who survived, Derek Patter, lying side-by-side with two other injured players on hospital beds, clasping each others’ hands in support. One of the young men appeared to be wearing a neck brace.
“Saskatchewan, these are our boys,” said Moe, the province’s top politician.
“Words cannot describe the loss that we feel tonight,” he said on his Twitter feed, featuring a large photo of the smiling team members in their gold and green uniforms.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that he “cannot imagine what these parents are going through, and my heart goes out to everyone affected by this terrible tragedy, in the Humboldt community and beyond.”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who represents a Saskatchewan district in Parliament, called the crash “truly devastating.”
The Broncos are “in shock as we try to come to grips with our incredible loss,” team president Kevin Garinger said in a statement.
Hockey Canada, the governing body for the sport at grassroots levels, said the hockey family will unite in the face of the tragedy.
“Our hockey community is a tight-knit family,” it said.
– ‘My heart is in Humboldt’ –
Fans and players alike shared messages of condolence using the hashtag #PrayforHumboldt, and some hotels offered free lodging for affected family members.
“2night my heart is in Humboldt,” tweeted Anaheim Ducks National Hockey League defenseman Steven Oleksy.
The collision brought back memories of a single vehicle bus crash in December 1986, also in Saskatchewan, that killed four members of the Western Hockey League Swift Current Broncos.
That team shared its condolences after the latest loss.
“Humboldt Broncos weighing heavy in our hearts and minds tonight,” the team said on Twitter.