The gravity of the situation dissipated in a matter of moments. Joy overwhelmed grief in a space the size of a penalty box.
Jarret Stoll only knew the Humboldt Broncos players from what he had heard and seen from afar until he visited surviving members of the fatal April 6 bus crash last weekend. He toured Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, Canada, not far from where he grew up in Saskatchewan, and felt a wonderful vibe he didn't fully expect.
"The first word that comes to mind is how powerful it was just walking into the room and seeing smiles on their faces despite what they've been through," Stoll said. "They've had so many surgeries done and more surgeries to come, but they were still smiling."
The bus crash that killed 16 members of the junior hockey team hit home for Stoll, a two-time Stanley Cup-winning center with the Kings who works in the team's development department. Much of his boyhood was spent traveling by bus with teammates through that western region of the country. His youth hockey team, the Yorkton Terriers, played in the same league as the Broncos.
"I would go to all those games, and I was a huge fan of that team," Stoll said of Yorkton. "I played in that arena [in Humboldt]."
Some who survived the crash are being treated at a Royal University wing that Stoll helps fund through his charity golf tournament. Stoll began the event around 2005, with about 20 to 30 teammates and friends. In the first six years, the Jarret Stoll Patient Comfort Fund Endowment raised $1 million for hospital equipment and furniture, among other necessities, to help patients such as Broncos defenseman Morgan Gobeil, one of 13 injured players.
Stoll never could have imagined his charity would be involved in something like this. But there he was last Friday, with numerous other current and former NHL players, including Hall of Fame member Mike Modano and Sean Monahan of the Calgary Flames, and a reported 10,000 people at SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon for a country music benefit concert.
Stoll had dinner with the families of some of the survivors.
"It was a time for laughs and some cries and great music," Stoll said. "It was a night for all the families to just take a breath, but also to have a laugh or to have a cry or two. It was something I'll never forget."
More than $15 million (in Canadian dollars) has been raised through a GoFundMe campaign, with the tragedy shining a light on the communal ties of the hockey world. After the crash, people displayed hockey sticks outside their doors in honor of the victims. Through the NHL playoffs, players are wearing Humboldt Broncos stickers on their helmets and coaches are sporting Humboldt-green ribbons on their suit lapels. Kings defenseman Dion Phaneuf, from Edmonton, donated $10,000.
Most everybody in hockey can identify with the Broncos and the community spirit of Canada's prairie heartland.
"A very proud people and caring people," Stoll said. "It just doesn't matter whether you know the person or not, when you're part of that community … everybody knows everybody. Local businesses support each other. Everybody's kids grow up together. It's just the way people are. Not many people are strangers."
Stoll lived the life of the Broncos, having played hockey in Humboldt and Nipawin, where Humboldt was traveling for a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League game.
"I know all those types of roads," Stoll said. "It's a lot of semis and tractor-trailers. I know how it could have happened.
"Most weekends you're going to tournaments, Saturday-Sunday, back-to-back games in that town. It's a lot of driving because it's spread out pretty good, six, seven hours."
Soon after the fatal wreck, Stoll approached Jennifer Pope, vice president of community relations for the Kings, about having fans reach out. For an April 15 game at Staples Center, the Kings set up stations for fans to write well wishes and messages to the victims and their families.
"We've gotten hundreds and hundreds of letters, maybe thousands," Pope said. "Kids drawing pictures, adults writing messages."
Said Stoll: "A lot of cards were written by kids, which was awesome to see."
Among the things that his charity funded for the hospital were sleeping arrangements for families to stay with their loved ones. Stoll said he's still shaken up by the crash.
"It's just a shock no matter what," Stoll said. "Just to know where it was and exactly where, knowing that hockey league, how young those kids are, how much potential they had. They had their whole lives ahead of them."