Humboldt tragedy brings back bad memories for junior hockey coach

Chilliwack Chiefs bench boss Jason Tatarnic was involved in a bus accident with Woodstock in 2007.

There is a little voice in the back of Jason Tatarnic’s head that yells at him every time he gets on a bus, reminding him about the time he almost lost his life on a junior A hockey road-trip.

It’s a voice that’s gotten a lot louder this week, in the wake of a horrible bus accident in Saskatchewan that claimed the lives of 16 people connected with the Humboldt Broncos.

Tatarnic has watched the news coverage and seen the photos, and heard from members of the Woodstock Slammers who were on a bus with him in 2007, a bus that flipped in the snow on the way to a game in Prince Edward Island.

“It was a neutral-site game and it was windy with whiteout conditions,” Tatarnic recalled. “Our tire went off the road, kind of got caught and away we went.

“We were fortunate there was a lot of fresh snow on the ground, so when the bus flipped we weren’t getting dragged over hard ground. The windows popped open and we got a ton of snow in the bus, but it was soft snow and we didn’t get any injuries that way. And we slid perfectly through two concrete barriers. What are the odds of a bus sliding perfectly between two concrete barriers?”

According to a news report from that day, 22 players, five team officials and the driver were on the bus when it flipped near Days Corner, PEI.

“When I looked to the back of the bus when we came to a stop, I wasn’t expecting to see… a good sight,” Tatarnic admitted. “But things worked out.”

The report mentions Tatarnic sustaining minor cuts. Assistant coach Bob Vail had to be freed from the bus by the Jaws of Life and airlifted to hospital in critical condition. But he eventually pulled through, leaving the Tatarnic to consider the what ifs of life.

What if the bus hit one of those concrete barriers flush. What if Woodstock’s opponent that night hadn’t been following just a few minutes behind, arriving on the scene quickly to aid the Slammers and summon help.

What if, what if, what if.

“Players love to play and coaches love to coach and travel is part of being in junior hockey,” Tatarnic said. “It took a while, but the first time I had to jump back on the bus in Woodstock, it was nerve-wracking. It wasn’t easy, but we got over it. It’s not even close to what happened in Humboldt in terms of the outcome, but it’s always in the back of your mind. Even to this day, I have thoughts whenever I jump on a bus.

“It was tough for me to get back on the bus and tough for my players, and I’ve had some of them reach out to me this week expressing how lucky we were.”

Tatarnic hopes some good can come out of a very bad situation, starting with the design of the buses that ferry hockey teams from place to place.

“Maybe one thing is how they’re built, and why do we need all those windows and why can’t air bags can’t be part of a bus?” he said. “What’s the reason for seat-belts not being on coaches? Why can’t we make buses safer? Maybe that could have saved one or two live in Humboldt, and maybe it’s time we started asking those questions.”

Honestly, it’s a wonder these accidents don’t happen more often. Not to the degree of the Humboldt crash, but given the miles hockey teams cover every year in inclement weather as they criss-cross the provinces, the risk is constant.

Tatarnic’s Chilliwack Chiefs make winter road trips to Prince George, Vernon, Penticton, Salmon Arm, West Kelowna, Wenatchee, Trail, Merritt and the Coquihalla Highway is so bad its the subject of a TV show called Highway Thru Hell.

“Our accident changed how we traveled in Woodstock, where we didn’t hesitate to cancel games because of weather,” Tatarnic said. “I look at the travel schedule we have now, and I’d like to see changes. I know you can’t accommodate everything, but we have teams going to the Interior and I think those games should be played as early in the season as possible to avoid the winter months.

“It’s hard to see how anything good can come of this, but maybe there are things we should be looking at.”

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