There was a poignant juxtaposition on the front page of this newspaper last week.
Dominating the cover was a standalone photo taken at the opening day ceremony for a North Shore baseball league. In that photo, more than two dozen players can be seen smiling, laughing, chatting and fooling around as they await the start of the ceremony and the season.
Just to the left of the photo was an article about the horrifying bus crash that claimed the lives of 16 people associated with the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team and left 13 others injured.
The contrast couldn’t be starker: the pure innocent joy of sport on one side, the worst sports nightmare on the other.
I know some of the players that are in that baseball photo – they’re on a team that I’m coaching. And even in the age of smartphones, where photos appear in an “insta,” kids still love to be in the newspaper. Those photos written in ink and delivered right to their doorsteps become keepsakes, oftentimes tucked into shoeboxes or scrapbooks to be kept for generations.
It occurred to me, however, that the mementos printed out last week will always have a sharp edge to them given the story that is positioned just beside that photo. That joyous moment will forever be linked to another moment that ripped the country to its core.
There’s a part of me, however, that is glad that the photo is there, right beside that story. We all wish that the Broncos crash never happened, that the story never was written, that those 16 strong hearts were still beating.
But it did happen; nothing will take that story off the page. But beside the story in our paper, there is that photo, and in that photo you see the joy, the camaraderie, the fun that kicks off the careers of all young athletes, including the Humboldt Broncos. Moments like those are shared experiences that unite young athletes in all sports across Canada and around the globe. In that photo there are multiple age groups joined together, the older ones sharing laughs and getting reacquainted with friends, the younger ones stealing the show with their face paint and short attention spans.
All the best reasons for getting kids involved in sport shine out in that photo. The photo was a reminder of the sports world at its best, at a time when the sports world was at its worst.
And the sports world can get pretty low. Concussions are a concern for anyone involved in any contact sport. Abuse and bullying can occur just outside the reach of the bright lights of the field. Some experts are raising the alarm about dropping participation levels, pointing to the “adult-ification” and professionalization of youth sport that is erasing fun and replacing it with unrealistic dreams of future riches. The junior hockey system itself has questions that have never been adequately answered. Why can teenage players be “drafted” or “traded” by a team thousands of kilometres from home? Is this in the best interest of these young athletes?
And then a bus and a tractor-trailer collided at a frozen Prairie intersection and things will never be quite the same, for those affected directly by the crash as well as for those in this country who spend their weekend hours on the ball diamond, at the rink, or on soggy soccer fields.
There’s a reason that the GoFundMe campaign for the crash victims has raised more than $13 million. Anyone who has spent time in a dressing room, sent a child out on a road trip, eaten too many slices of pizza at a team dinner or shovelled snow off a frozen pond feels a connection to those Broncos on the bus.
Stories from the crash are incredible – on the day 18-year-old player Ryan Straschnitzki found out he may never walk again, he told his dad he was going to win Paralympic gold for Canada in sledge hockey. Logan Boulet was one player who didn’t make it, but the Broncos player made a point of signing an organ donor card when he turned 21. His organs went to save the lives of six other people, and his story helped spur a massive blitz of people across the country signing their own organ donor cards.
The worst of sport has brought out the best in all of us.
This weekend I spent close to nine hours on various baseball fields with players from both of my sons’ teams. There were triumphs and failures, laughs and tears, shouts and screams. Players of all abilities took part, cheering each other on. During one exhibition game, our first of the year, a young girl called out from the dugout to her teammate at the plate. “You can do it!” she yelled.
That’s a good kid. They’re all good kids. There was no place I’d rather be, and I contend that there was no place better for those kids to be.
We’ve still got hard months ahead. More funerals will be held this week. The survivors are dealing with injuries inside and out that will last forever.
We’re going to remember this story for a long time. But there’s that photo just beside the story, a frozen moment that captures the reason why we love these games so much. We’re going to remember that too.
Andy Prest is the sports editor for the North Shore News and writes a biweekly humour/lifestyle column. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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