Book on tragic high school crash raises awareness, reminder of vigilance for parents of student-athletes

Jason Kay
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Hockey parents get a bad rap for boorish behavior, but there’s no questioning their dedication. They’ll drive thousands of clicks every winter to transport their kids to games and tournaments in faraway communities.

Some of the schlepping is done through brutal wintry conditions. At times, we make questionable decisions, proceeding when we should probably postpone, or getting behind the wheel when we’re tired. Maybe we haven’t checked the air pressure in our tires recently, which can be critical for safety on ice and snow.

These are choices we’ve made and we’re accountable for any dire consequences.

But what happens when we entrust our children’s well being during extracurricular transportation to the school system? How assured should we feel that appropriate standards are in place and they’re being regulated and monitored?

That’s one of the areas of examination in Richard Foot’s book Driven, which tells the tales of three mothers and their quest for answers and change after their sons were among seven high school basketball players killed, along with the coach’s wife, in a collision in 2008.

They were returning home on a stormy, icy night to Bathurst, N.B., from Moncton, a 400-kilometer round trip, when their van, driven by the team’s coach, spun out of control and directly into the path of an oncoming transport truck. The driver of the rig couldn’t stop in time and one of the worst road tragedies in Canadian history in terms of lives lost ensued.

Due in large part to unrelenting lobbying and campaigning of Isabelle Hains and Ana Acevedo, then later Marcella Kelly, a coroner’s inquest was held, which made several safety recommendations that were adopted. New Brunswick also subsequently banned the use of 15-passenger vans for student transportation, joining Quebec, Nova Scotia and dozens of U.S. states to enact the measure. Nova Scotia was the first Canadian province to take the step, in 1994, about a decade after three young hockey players perished in a crash.

Fifteen-passenger vans have been the subject of controversy, cited for a high rollover rate in some research. Other reports, including one study conducted by Transport Canada in 2013, concluded the 15-passenger vans are as safe as any other highway vehicle.

Regardless, the New Brunswick tragedy and aftermath should raise a flag for parents to understand how their children are being shuttled to high school hockey games and other activities and whether they’re confident appropriate safety standards are being enforced. Some districts use school buses with professionally-trained drivers; for others, it’s a teacher or coach behind the wheel of a non-regulated vehicle. In Canada, it remains an ad hoc system, with no national policy.

The hockey world has been touched by fatal auto accidents numerous times over the years. Tim Horton, Pelle Lindbergh, Dan Snyder, Luc Bourdon, Don Ashby, Steve Chiasson and Valeri Kharlamov are among the high profile players who perished in wrecks. A bus accident in 1986 killed four members of the Swift Current Broncos. Chicago captain Ed Litzenberger was in a vehicle that crashed and claimed his wife in 1959. Tom Cochrane famously relates the story of a deadly collision involving a young hockey player in his song “Big League.” And that’s just some of victims of stature of whom we’re aware.

Some of the accidents were senseless and caused by negligence. For others, it’s less clear what could have been done to prevent tragedy. A good starting point for all of us, as it’s underlined in Driven, is awareness and vigilance.