Elliott: Our hearts are in Humboldt
By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
It was a relatively normal Florida afternoon on April 6.
Team Saskatchewan was out of the cold enjoying 80-degree temperatures with their own spring training at Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach. OF Jayden Huls was walking back from dinner when he said to coach Roger Anholt, “I don’t know what to do. I guess there was a horrible accident at home.”
Huls (Humboldt, Sask.) had read the horrific news of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.
His friends were on that bus.
His former teammates were on that bus.
And then came the waiting.
Greg Brons, Saskatchewan Baseball’s high performance director, had heard that Evan Thomas (Saskatoon, Sask.), a right winger for the Broncos, was on the bus and late that evening he continued to text friends back home whether or not Evan was OK. In the early morning hours he got the terrible news. Evan was gone.
“We’re on one crescent in Northeastern Saskatoon, he and his family are on the next. Evan went to the bantam nationals in Vaughn in 2014,” Brons said. “My cousin Dayna Brons is the trainer. Originally I wondered if she was on the bus - so I texted my mom and dad back home to find out.”
Dayna Brons (Lake Lenore, Sask.) was on the bus and was at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon when we spoke to Brons. His worries and concerned turned towards her. Five days later Dayna passed.
Another Brons’ cousin, Luke Strueby, head scout for the Broncos, was not on the bus. Another cousin, Chad Hofmann, was in Boston calling and texting Brons, “Checking to see how Jayden was doing, knowing that Jayden must be having a hard time.”
“We spent all night on the phone,” coach Brons said. Jayden Huls wanted to take Saturday off ... “but he showed for batting practice. Baseball can be therapeutic.”
Saskatchewan played the Lancaster Legends, a high school team from Western New York at Holmann Stadium on Saturday where all the Dodger Hall of Famers played.
“The coach is from near Buffalo and heard about the accident,” Brons said. “He came over before the game and suggested a moment’s silence before the first pitch.”
Word started to spread. The staff at Dodgertown expressed sympathy. So did some Montreal Alouettes prospects and YourCall football players working out.
While exhibition games in Florida don’t have say the passion or the tension of say the provincials or the nationals, Brons said he was not having trouble concentrating on how many outs there were, or the count, despite what was unfolding in his home province.
“It’s different when you head back to your room at night and read Twitter,” Brons said on the Monday, three days after the crash. “It’s tough, to be so far away when you know that your community is really hurting.”
On Tuesday April 10, the team was on an Orlando-Calgary flight and then on to Saskatoon.
Said Brons: “It is going to be tough going home.”
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Former Detroit Tiger reliever Dustin Molleken (Regina, Sask.) was at home when his father Doug Molleken phoned with news of the Humboldt bus being in an accident and it was “very serious.”
“My father scouts for the Portland Winterhawks, he’d probably seen most of those kids play,” said Molleken, who is soon headed south to pitch for the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League.
“People around town are very, very upset, people are having a hard time dealing with this,” Molleken said. “I cried watching the vigil, life is strange ...”
Molleken said the presence of Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry (Kingston, Ont.) and Ron MacLean, (Red Deer, Alta.), along with Edmonton Oilers coach Todd McLellan (Melville, Sask.) and Calgary Flames coach Glen Gulutzan (The Pas, Man.) who skated for the Saskatoon Blades, lifted the spirits of the community.
“Everyone was so thankful Don Cherry, Ron MacLean, the coaches and the Prime Minister for showing to pay their respects.”
“My uncle, Lorne, coached in Moose Jaw in the early 1990s and coached Scott Thomas, his son Evan Thomas was on the bus,” said Molleken. “I feel awful for Greg Brons.”
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On the Blue Jays pregame show April 9, Sportsnet’s Jamie Campbell conducted a touching and most difficult interview with coach Clint Binsfeld of the Saskatoon Blue Jays and Scott Thomas, who lost his son, Evan Thomas, in the bus crash.
“Baseball was a release for him in a sense, because growing up in Saskatoon and being a Canadian we all seamed to put more emphasis and maybe pressure on hockey. And now hockey is a 12-month a year thing, so when he got the opportunity to play baseball we took it a little less seriously if you will, He went out and had a little bit more pure joy playing baseball, than hockey. Hockey was a little more work if you will.”
Now having a “litte more pure joy,” might seem to imply that Evan Thomas was on the field goofing around. Not so.
Playing for coach Scott Frey and head coach Binsfeld, who skated for the same Humboldt junior league, the Saskatchewan champs went 3-2 to finish sixth. They beat Newfoundland and Labrador 8-6, Manitoba 19-7 and Nova Scotia 12-4, while losing 9-8 to New Brunswick and 5-4 to Prince Edward Island before losing the fifth-place game to British Columbia 14-2.
There were 132 players at the 2014 bantam 15U nationals in Vaughan that August.
Ontario infielder Dondrae Bremner, who was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 31st round last year and now attends the University of Cincinnati, shared the lead with 12 hits and a .571 batting average.
New Brunswick infielder Adam Estey also had 12 hits, batting .462.
And third with 11 hits was Thomas, hitting a double, a triple and three RBIs for a .440 average. Third out of 132. Baseball might have been fun and pure joy for the late Evan Thomas, but he was enjoying it rounding first base. He also earned Gold Glove honours at second base.
Evan Thomas played fall baseball and then concentrated on hockey.
Scott Thomas is president of the midget triple-A Saskatoon Blazers and organized the 2012 Western Canada 13U peewees championships hosted in Saskatoon. BC Cloverdale beat Saskatoon 9-5 in the final of the eight-team tourney.
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Cole Bauml (Meunster, Sask.) was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 10th round of the 2015 draft from the Northern Kentucky Golden Norse. He signed and played 37 games with the rookie-class Gulf Coast Tigers.
And in 2016 he spent 64 games with the class-A Connecticut Tigers and last year 125 with the class-A West Michigan Whitecaps.
When the rosters for the triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, double-A Erie SeaWolves, class-A Lakeland Flying Tigers and West Michigan were posted at the end of March, Bauml’s name was not on a list.
So on April 6, he was still in Lakeland, Fla. at extended spring training waiting to be assigned to a team. He was sitting on his couch when his brother Braden phoned to say: “I heard the Broncos bus was in an accident -- and it’s bad.”
Like Greg Brons across the state at Vero Beach or Chad Hofmann in Boston. Their hearts were in Humboldt with the Broncos and their families but they were oh so far away. Like the other Saskatchewan proud players and coaches, Bauml spent the night reading Twitter.
Bauml had company in his one of his best friends former West Michigan first baseman Blaise Salter drafted in the 31st round from Michigan State in 2015.
“We’re very close friends, Blaise was following along with me,” Bauml said. “You can’t even explain how horrible this was.”
Bauml said he had received text messages from friends. And others ask “are you from that part of Saskatchewan where that accident was?”
“People have definitely been emphatic with the GoFundMe page,” Bauml said, “from all of people in Saskatchewan, most everyone in Canada and people around the world. Anyone who ever played or has been on any sport can relate to the getting on a bus to travel to a game.”
Bauml lived 10 minutes from Humboldt, said he “had the honour of meeting some of Humboldt hockey players,” at the weekly Monday night drop-in basketball. He knew Parker Tobin, who died in the accident, and Martin Gobiel, who survived.
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Meanwhile, Chad Hofmann, Greg Brons’ cousin, was at Fenway Park with his wife Tara, along with Jay and Brucie McGrath on Thursday, April 5 to see the Boston Red Sox edge the Tampa Bay Rays 3-2 in the home opener the day before the crash. Hofmann coached the Muenster Red Sox, 10 minutes east of Humboldt last summer.
On Friday, the off day, he received a text that there had been an accident. He started looking for information and spent Saturday morning reading. Hofmann coached Morgan Gobeil (Humbolt, Sask.), a Broncos defenceman, injured in the crash.
Hofmann had coached Jayden Huls and Morgan Gobeil with the Muenster Red Sox. While Huls was in Vero was Saskatchewan’s best ball players, Gobeil was on the bus and is still recovering.
Gobeil pitched for the 18U Muenster Red Sox, he won a bronze medal at midget nationals in 2016 and won the Western Canadians in 2017. The population of the town of Muenster is 450, yet roughly 110% of the men play ball.
“Our community is known for our ball teams, as well as our facilities which we are proud of,” said Hofmann. “We draw from the rural area around us as well as the communities of Lake Lenore, Humboldt and Leroy. Some years a few other towns as well such as Nipawin, Anaheim.”
The midget team has been operating for 30 years, but that is small potatoes compared to the Marysburg Royals, who will play their 100th year of operation, this year in the Saskatoon Senior League.
The connections abound: Hofman’s daughter’s hockey coach is the father of Jacob Leicht (Humboldt, Sask.), who passed in the accident, the secretary at the Meunster School is Carol Brons, mother of Dayna and finally Evan Thomas (Saskatoon, Sask.), who Hofmann coached in fall ball.
Meanwhile, Hofmann’s son, Logan Hofmann (Muenster, Sask.) leads the Colby College Trojans in innings, going 4-2, with one save and a 5.04 ERA striking out 82 in 59 2/3 innings.
“You couldn’t do anything being so far away, you can’t really do anything, only try to read as much as you can,” Hofmann said. “It was very quiet at school that first Monday.”
“One positive is how people worked together.”
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Sylvie Kellington, a resident of Humboldt, who has a son that played for the Broncos Bantam A team this past season and Cailin Hergott, set up the GoFundMe page. The original goal was to pay for coffee and parking for the families at Royal University Hospital “and maybe the meals” Hergott has said of their limited goals at the start.
Working on this story we have checked the GoFundMe page twice a day for the last four days. The shortest time we saw for a last posting was one minute and the longest posting was three months. And Wednesday was the final day for the page before ihe $15,179,873 million raised will be transferred to the new Humboldt Broncos Memorial Fund.
The Nurnberg Ice Tigers of the German Elite League donated 10,000 Euros ($15,560), the donations have come in anywhere from $20 to $500 for help for the families who lost 16 players and the players critically ill in hospital. The donations have come from Niton Central School’s Grade 6 Class Van Dyk in Yellowhead County, Alberta, Kernels Belleville & Peterborough and Beaver Creek General Store in Whitecourt, Alberta
There is a need to still raise money, however. Saskatchewan people are attempting to raise a memorial scholarship for the trainer Dayna Brons, who also passed in the accident. A fund has been set up through the registered charity Mount Royal Foundation scholarship. A total of $30,000 would need to be raised so the scholarship is endowed in perpetuity.
External individuals and organizations should go to https://www.mtroyal.ca/AboutMountRoyal/GivingMountRoyal/
then select ‘general giving’ under Additional giving opportunities, then select ‘Tribute-In Memory’ select ‘In Memory of Dayna Brons’ from the Fund Allocation drop-down list and enter required fields on page indicated with an asterisk.
Dayna Brons must be entered in the memory field and select “No Card.” The bereaved family have requested privacy as they mourn the death.
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Nathan LaFayette (Oakville, Ont.) rode the buses with the Kingston Frontenacs, Cornwall Royals, Newmarket Royals and the Peoria Rivermen before making the NHL. Sherry and Nathan LaFayette’s son Hudson LaFayette will catch for the Ontario Royals this summer.
LaFayette played in 187 games in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks, New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings until two concussions cut short his career. There were more bus rides in between NHL stops and after. He boarded the Iron Lung with the Syracuse Crunch, Binghamton Rangers, Phoenix Roadrunners, Fredericton Canadiens, Long Beach Ice Dogs and Lowell Lock Monsters.
“The story itself is tough, I had a rough time last week,” said the New Westminster, BC native. “Every parent has put their child on a bus at some time or another. That’s what makes the Humboldt story so real for everyone. The story has a huge impact.”
Last week LaFayette took the GO train from Oakville to Union Station on his way to work for Willis Towers Watson Insurance Brokers and bumped into Jason Podollan (Vernon, BC). The two-played together in 1999-2000 at Lowell, Mass. Podollan knew someone who had a connection with the Humboldt tragedy.
LaFayette recalls he was “never fond of the bus.” Once with the Frontenacs their bus broke down outside of North Bay on a cold winter’s night.
“Getting on the bus, you are never dressed for the outside, so we had to bundle up for the walk,” LaFayette said. “We had to hike to a truck stop. I remember one of the veterans predicting that (the truck stop) will be watering down the soup when they see us, because they would not be used to this many people. Sure enough they served watery vegetable soup.”
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Shelia O’Flaherty (Oakville, Ont.) called her sister Marilyn McNamara (Kelowa, BC) last week three time zones away,
McNamara was having some work done on her house. When the man showed he told McNamara that “he might not be at his 100% best, because he’d just dropped his wife at the airport.” One of his wife’s relatives had been on the bus, was in hospital and she was flying into Saskatoon.
McNamara told him to come back another day.
He stayed and did the work.
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Susan Harris’s mom was born in Humboldt and raised on on a crop farm near Pilger, Sask.. The family began working the farm in 1901 and now rents the property to other farmers.
How big is Pilger?
“It’s about 50 ... if we count the cats and dogs,” said Harris (Oakville, Ont.). “It’s about a 25-minute drive from Humboldt. Humboldt was always considered the ‘big town’ that they went there to get groceries, medical or anything not available to the farmers.
“I’ve visited Humboldt annually growing up and I’ve been back a dozen times to visit an assortment or aunts, uncles and cousins that still live there. Fortunately for the family no one related to them that was on the bus.”
Her cousins’ kids attend Humboldt High School and students were upset over the loss of statistician Brody Hinz as well as the hockey players and the rest of the club’s staff.
“My sister is in Calgary and would tell someone “I’m going to Humboldt,’” Harris said. “Very few people knew the town of Humboldt. Now everyone knows, it is so so unfortunate that this is why the name of the town is known around the world.”
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Jared Binsfeld (Saskatoon, Sask.) was away from the Bismarck State Mystics to return home for the funeral of his close friend Evan Thomas.
He attended Thomas’ funeral on Monday, drove back to Bismarck on Tuesday and on Wednesday, he hit a game-ending two-run home run into the snow over the left-field fence at Dwyer Field, to cap off the Mystics sweep of Lake Region State College.
“(This) is somewhat of an escape to get your mind off of it for a little while,” Binsfeld told the Bismark Tribune. “It’s been pretty surreal. Even at the funeral it didn’t seem real.
“What happened is terrible and it affected and hurt so many people, but it also brought a lot of people together ... it brought a whole country together.”
As of Wednesday, a GoFundMe campaign had raised nearly $15 million dollars for the families of the victims, the second largest fundraising effort in the history of the online site.
“You just hurt for Evan’s family and everybody involved, but at the same time you’re so proud of how everyone has come together.”