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A Canadian hockey odyssey

Local carver Maurice Jacques and his grandson pay homage to the Humboldt Broncos
Author: Devan Mighton
Photographer: Maximus Reid
2 years ago
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Hockey is Canada’s common language. Since the mid-19th century, Canadians, from coast to coast to coast, have been strapping blades to children barely old enough to walk and talk, putting a stick in their hands, and dreaming big dreams as their little ones slowly learn how to push a puck down the ice. In a few short years, the little ones have grown and learned to carve poetry into the ice with lightning flashes of steel as they careen across the rink in search of hockey glory.

From Conception Bay along the Atlantic, across to Fort St. John on the Pacific, from Cambridge Bay in the north, down to the deep south of Essex County, the language of hockey is near-universal. A common dialect, a common dream, a common passion; and buried in the heart of the Canadian hockey wilderness is the City of Humboldt, Saskatchewan.

On  Apr. 6, 2018, the Humboldt Broncos packed their bus with their bags and set out for a road playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks. Down 3–1 in the best-of-seven series, the Broncos, a Junior A team in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, knew their season was on the line that night. As their bus cruised north on Highway 35, the team prepared for their game, oblivious to their fate. Taping sticks, eyes closed with air-pods in, pregame chats, all ended in a sudden bang. For the 29 people aboard that bus, 16 would perish, and all involved – survivors, family, billets, the community, and the country – would be changed forever.

For Windsor-born stone carver Maurice Jacques and his grandson, Ryan, the tragedy of the Humboldt Broncos 2018 bus accident spoke to them in ways that would inspire them to partake in a six-day cross-country odyssey to deliver a gift straight from the heart.

Maurice started carving 15 years ago. Self-taught, he started with wood and transitioned to stone about eight years ago. “I’m just a carver,” emphasizes Maurice. “I just carve and I usually do it for things that I want or if I take a liking to something. It’s one of those things, when you go into that detail, you have to spend a lot of time on it. You certainly don’t want to carve for nothing. You carve if somebody wants it or is going to buy it, or else you’re making something for somebody.”

A retired heavy machine operator, Maurice, a father of four and grandfather of seven, took up carving as a pastime, not as a profession. “I’m not the kind of person who wants to sit out there in a tent,” explains Maurice. “I tried it once already with paint and I don’t like sitting there, begging for people to buy my paintings. If you want it, I’ll make it, I’ll do it for you – or, if I decide I want to make something, then usually it’s for free – I don’t charge anybody anything.”

News of the Humboldt tragedy shook Maurice to his core. “After it happened, I was touched by it – I don’t know how to explain it,” recalls Maurice. “About six months later, I started carving – getting a piece and starting on it. It took three years to carve.” The result of his labour – an 110 lbs. stone statue featuring the logo of the Broncos.

After the third anniversary of the crash, Maurice and his grandson, Ryan, made the commitment to drive to Humboldt, pay their respects, and present the community with the carving.

On June 11, the pair took off from LaSalle. Due to the COVID-19 border restrictions, Maurice and Ryan had to take the Canadian side to reach the prairies. A long pilgrimage that will stick with them forever. “It was good; it was really nice,” says Maurice. “I’ve driven there once before – not to Humboldt, but my stepdaughter lives in Alberta, so we’ve driven that road on the way there.”

Maurice never played hockey, but his grandchildren did. Hockey is something many Canadians relate to – the winter road trips, late night drives back from the rink, sending your kids to regions unknown to play in towns you’ve only ever seen on a schedule – maybe why the collision resonated with so many.

“My grand kids didn’t go to that level, but I could just imagine if they went to that level and something like that happened,” laments Maurice. “I feel sorry for the people. Could you imagine the parents, everyday, going by the arena and it just brings up the memories?”

When the pair reached hallowed ground, the intersections of Highway 35 and 335 near the community of Armley, they were humbled by what they saw. “I brought it to the crash site, and I remember saying to myself, ‘Here it is, guys. You’ve asked for this and I’m here with it,'” recalls Maurice. “It made you feel something within you.

“My grandson was touching the cross and he started to cry. He said that when he played hockey like that, he couldn’t imagine what it’s like losing all your friends in an accident like that. It was touching to see the crash site and it was pretty sad.”

“It’s all hockey sticks, skates, and pucks, jerseys and flowers, crosses with the name of every young man that lost their life – and the five adults that lost their lives there too.”

Maurice knelt and scooped a handful of soil in his hand. Eyes filled with purpose; he baptized his carving with the ground in which 16 innocents had lost their lives. All that was left to do was to deliver the artifact to the Elgar Petersen Arena and Uniplex in Humboldt.

Upon arrival, the pair were met by the arena manager and some city staff to unload the carving. The Jacques were honoured by the great care and appreciation the staff showed Maurice’s three year labour of love.

“I enjoyed doing it and felt good about doing what I had done,” admits Maurice. “It was something that I knew I had to do, and it felt good to do it. A lot of people ask me, ‘Why are you doing that?’ And, my answer is, ‘Because I want to.’ When you see the people and how happy they are that they got it, it makes you feel great. It’s important to them.

“In hockey and sports, the logos always change after a while – at least, this logo is put in stone.”

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