Broncos bus crash hits Rybalka hard
Humboldt Broncos defenceman Stephen Wack spent parts of two season with the Camrose Kodiaks. He was among 15 killed when their team bus was struck by a semi on Friday. Paul Grue/Pro Sports Photography
Camrose Kodiaks head coach Boris Rybalka began getting texts and phone calls almost immediately after the Humboldt Broncos bus was t-boned by a semi that ran a stop sign on Friday night.
Among the 15 dead were two people he knew quite well, defenceman Stephen Wack, 21, who played for the Kodiaks and head coach Darcy Haugan.
Rybalka, who grew up in Saskatchewan, played for the Broncos in the 1980s. The "once a Kodiak always a Kodiak" mantra that permeates among graduates of Camrose club, well Rybalka was a Bronco first.
"The Broncos were Humboldt and Humboldt was a Bronco," he said. "They were proud of it. They were proud of the players. You knew everybody, the players participated in everything that went on in the community. To have that arena filled for games … it was a tragic, tragic day.
"The easiest thing we can do is pray for the community, pray for families, pray for everybody involved. It's a strong community and no words can express how I feel and how the hockey world feels."
Wack was a Kodiak first. He started his junior career in Camrose after the St. Albert native played his minor hockey in the Edmonton area, including a year of midget AAA in Fort Saskatchewan. He played a season and a half with the Kodiaks before being traded to the Whitecourt Wolverines on Dec. 1, 2015. In his 48 games with Camrose, however, he made a big impact, including being named the team's most dedicated player following the 2014-15 season.
It may be the biggest impact he made with the club was off the ice, and Rybalka remembers the visits from the Wack family at home games.
"I smile because of who he is as a person, he was a great, great young man," he said. "He was caring, thoughtful, had a sense of humour, he loved the game of hockey he loved his brother, he loved his family."
Wack was dealt to the Broncos in June of 2016 and he spent the last two Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League seasons as a six-foot-six pillar on their blue-line. Though a defensive defenceman, this was his best offensive season with 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in 53 games, while cutting his penalty minutes from 120 last year to 92 this season.
"I looked at the picture of him and it's hard, because you go 'he's right there,' and now he's not there any more," said Rybalka. "He had a bright future ahead of him, he'll be up in heaven looking down at us."
The coaching fraternity is a small one, and Rybalka knew Haugan well. Haugan had coached been coaching since 2001, and had been with the Broncos since 2015. The two often talked hockey about strategy on and off the ice.
"There's a young man who had a wife and two kids, and another man who just loved the game, loved hockey, loved teaching the kids. He'll be missed, not only by his family but also by the hockey world."
Rybalka knows the small-Saskatchewan city of 6,000 well and says the community and surrounding area will be strong through this. His mind immediately went back to the Swift Current Broncos bus crash in 1986 that left four dead and he saw how the hockey world rallied around them.
Hundreds packed the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt on Sunday for a vigil while messages of support have been sent in from around the globe, including from Queen Elizabeth II.
"It will never go away, but the community is going to be strong," said Rybalka. "They're going to stick together, they're going to need lots of support from everybody … and that's how they're going to get through it."
This tragic incident has also emphasized Rybalka's role as not just a hockey coach, but as a father figure for his players past and present. He has spent many hours on his phone since Friday night counselling players from all corners of the hockey world, and he admits he does not have all the answers but says it is best to find someone to open up to.
"You can't let it fester and sit inside. If people want to shed tears, shed them. You need to get that off your chest and you have to communicate and talk. The worst thing is to keep it inside when something like this happens."
Getting on the bus to travel all over the Prairies is an accepted part of life for a hockey coach, players and staff. Often times teams look forward to getting out on the road as a time to leave the noise and stress of home behind and bond together and get closer as a team, in a way making this incident that much more devastating.
"I think the wives and parents and everyone are the ones who really have it on their mind, going 'Make sure you come home safely,'" said Rybalka. "The players play because they love the game. Coaches coach because they love the game. Trainers train because they love the game … You all get on the bus and you don’t think that's going to happen."