WATERLOO — When P.K. O’Handley steps onto the Waterloo Black Hawks’ charter bus Friday, he may pause as he climbs aboard.
Friday will be exactly a week since the tragic bus accident in Saskatchewan that claimed the lives of 16 members of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team. It will be the first time since that accident O’Handley and the Waterloo Black Hawks board a bus for a road trip.
“I suppose now with this being our first time back on the bus the tension will be up a little,” O’Handley said. “You know, you never know what is going to happen. Nobody does, but when tragedy strikes young people it is pretty powerful and it hits close to home because we do it.
“We live it every single day.
“It gives you pause and it always does. Now it gives you even more pause.”
O’Handley has spent much of his adult life on a bus as a hockey coach. During 27 years of coaching the North Iowa Huskies, the ECHL’s Florida Everblades and the United States Hockey League Black Hawks, O’Handley has traveled more than a million miles on a bus.
O’Handley is also one of the most media-friendly coaches in the business, giving local media almost unequaled behind-the-scenes access to the team, including 16 years of playoff bus rides.
It is a truly unique experience inside the world of junior hockey.
From the movies that are banned to the banter to legendary card games, endless pasta meals and rules and fines on usage of the lavatory, it is a world inside a world. Those bus rides are as much a part of the Black Hawks’ lives as the games they play on the ice inside Young Arena.
The casual fan probably can’t imagine what those buses smell like after 16 hours to and from a game, or the crazy, impromptu singing competitions after a big win. To junior hockey players, it is part of life.
“It is very much a piece of the fabric, one of the bigger pieces of fabric of hockey,” O’Handley said. “Anyone who has done it will tell you that. The games will come and go. For the players, they’re going to remember their friendships, they’re going to remember some big wins, some big losses, but all and all that is some serious time with each other in close proximity.
“To a hockey player to a hockey coach from the NHL on down to here you have done this. You remember it. You remember getting stuck in ‘X’ parking lot, the late nights, the card games, the jokes ... the right of passage of being a young player to an old player and moving from behind the coaches to the back of the bus is a big deal.
“It may sound weird, but it is what we do.”
O’Handley did not have any connections to the team in Humboldt, other than a chance meeting with the Broncos’ head coach Darcy Haugen, who is among the deceased, a few years ago.
But O’Handley said he is connected to the Humboldt Broncos because it is junior hockey.
A day after the tragedy, O’Handley spoke to his team about the accident, telling them there are no easy words or right words to describe it while also telling them nobody knows when their number is up.
“At this age, these guys are doing exactly what they love to do,” O’Handley recalled of his conversation with the team. “To a young person to an old person you have to live in the moment and be the best version of yourself you can be because you just don’t know.”
So, O’Handley may pause as he gets on bus to Madison, Wis., Friday, but he does not feel in danger.
“I worry about it all the time, our staff worries about it all the time, but our bus drivers over the course of the years have been safe,” O’Handley said. “But that doesn’t ... icy conditions occur. You hit deer, and we have. You blow a tire, and the bus goes sideways. All those things happen, and not just once, they happen.
“Am I concerned about our safety on the bus or the driver? No.
“The unknown, sure.”