A lot of porch lights have been left on across Canada the last few nights. In the U.S., too.
Each pool of light that bravely defies the darkness illuminates a carefully placed hockey stick or two. Or three, or five. The sticks are adult-sized and child-scaled, well-used and scuffed, and starkly new. Some are goaltenders sticks. They are wrapped in black tape and in pink tape, left crossed against each other while leaning against a posh front door, standing near a snow shovel on a slush-stained deck, or jammed into the enclosure of a balcony of an urban high-rise. Sometimes candles are placed next to the sticks, creating a tableau that is unspeakably sad yet also beautiful.
There was a sense of horror and helplessness among NHL players, coaches, executives and fans when news filtered out Friday that the bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos of Canada's Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League had collided with a tractor-trailer on a rural road near the town of Nipawin. Fifteen people — players, coaches, a broadcaster — died from their injuries. It was a devastating blow to Humboldt, a town of about 6,000, and to surrounding communities where players had grown up. Thoughts, prayers and money came flooding in to help the victims and their families, the relatively small hockey community taking care of its own with a tender and generous heart.
Many NHL teams paid tribute by displaying the name BRONCOS in place of the nameplates on the backs of players' uniforms on Saturday. Others, including the Kings, donated the proceeds from their 50/50 raffles to a fund set up to support those affected by the devastating accident. But that still wasn't enough for those who play and watch the game to express the depth of their sorrow.
Riding the buses is a universal experience in youth and minor hockey, and in the minor leagues at the professional level. Every player has sat on a bus and watched frozen fields or dark highways pass outside the window, playing cards or watching movies or dozing while the hum of the wheels drones on. It's a rite of passage. The Canadian Press news agency published a photo of a smashed DVD of the classic movie "Slap Shot" that was found near the crashed bus.
The safety of the bus ride is a given. "You don't even think about that. You get on the bus and you kind of get numb to it as a kid growing up. It's part of hockey," Ducks defenseman Josh Manson, who grew up not far away in the Saskatchewan town of Prince Albert, said Saturday. "You don't want to think about something like that. For it to happen, it's just devastating."
Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf had the same thought. He's from Saskatchewan, too, and he knows those roads and those endless dark miles.
"It definitely makes you think back on all the times you were sitting on the bus. Playing in the Western League you spent a lot of hours on the bus. That's crazy," he said last week after he and teammates had looked into how they could help ease the suffering of those injured and the families of the victims. "It's a big thing to happen to such a small community. Over the next couple of weeks there is not a lot you can do other than give love and support."
Somehow, people found a way to express their love sincerely and respectfully. Leaving those sticks on porches so the 15 people who lost their lives can, in spirit, pick up the sticks and play the game they loved so much is the most Canadian thing ever, which means touching and sincere and symbolic of how much a part of life hockey is there. We've borrowed it in the U.S. to a smaller but no less sincere extent.
The idea reportedly came from Brian Munz of Canada's TSN network, who posted a picture from a friend in Humboldt who had left a single stick on his front porch. The accompanying caption read, "Leaving it out on the porch tonight. The boys might need it ... wherever they are." It caught on quickly and spread far afield. Using the hashtag #Sticksoutfortheboys or #SticksoutforHumboldt, people have posted stunning photographs on social media of the sticks and tributes they've left outside homes in cities, prairies and suburbs.
Edmonton Oilers goalie Cam Talbot used his Twitter account to post a picture of a front door flanked on each side by the tools of his trade with the caption, "Thought they could use a goalie stick or two…"
TSN broadcaster Gord Miller put out a headset in honor of Tyler Bieber, the Broncos' radio play-by-play announcer who was one of the victims. Nelson Emerson, the Kings' director of player development, posted a photo of the stick he left outside his South Bay home. Jon Blum, a former NHL defenseman who played for the U.S. Olympic team in Pyeongchang, left a stick leaning against the wall of his Orange County home.
"When I heard about the Humboldt Broncos tragedy, it really hit home for me. I had the same goals and dreams as these kids when I was their age, riding the buses through western Canada when I played in the WHL," Blum said Tuesday. "Now, as a father, I couldn't imagine getting the phone call about my son being in a tragedy like that. By putting out my stick, I wanted to show that I stand in support of the families of the Broncos and the entire hockey community."
Grieving is just beginning for those who lost a loved one, and that's everyone who loves hockey. Leaving those sticks allows us to imagine those kids are flying up ice somewhere, playing the game they were meant to play, the game that unites so many so strongly.