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What you need to know about COVID-19: August 11, 2020
When Xavier Labelle climbed back in the saddle and rejoined the Saskatchewan men’s ‘A’ ball hockey team after a one-year interruption — an outfit called the Buffalo — the fact the 2019 national championship was slated to be played in Newfoundland and Labrador was not lost on the rangy defenceman from Saskatoon.
Because in an almost strange, and definitely fateful — if not tragic — way, Xavier Labelle and the province are somewhat linked, even though he’d never been here before.
“Yeah, it was one of the first thing things I thought about,” Labelle said. “That and Parker, of course.”
Parker is Parker Tobin, who, like Labelle, was a member of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team.
Both were on the team’s bus headed up to Nipawin, Sask., for a playoff game on that awful April 6 early evening over a year ago.
We all know what happened. Sixteen people died, and Labelle was one of the lucky kids to make it out alive. Tobin was not.
But it’s the story behind the story that has linked the two, with Newfoundland and Labrador roots. Though he hailed from Stony Plain, Alta., Tobin’s parents are from Conception Bay North.
As Brendan McCarthy wrote in The Telegram following the crash, they say what happened to Xavier Labelle and Parker Tobin was a nightmare.
It wasn’t. People wake up from nightmares.
For two days afterwards, Ed and Rhonda Tobin thought their boy was alive. Paul and Tanya Labelle were informed their son had not survived.
The Tobins kept vigil in the hospital room, next to the boy they thought was their son.
The kids were all roughly the same size. And as kids are wont to do, most all had their hair dyed blond for the playoffs. And in the midst of their post season, they all had a little facial scruff.
And they all had massive injuries.
Then came the news from Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Justice, days after the crash. There had been a mix-up at the coroner’s office.
Goaltender Parker Tobin was, in fact, one of the dead. Lying in that Saskatoon hospital bed was actually defenceman Xavier Labelle, a nasty gash on his forehead causing swelling and, naturally, affecting his appearance.
“Xavier woke up and said, ‘I’m not Parker Tobin,“’ said Wayne Nogier, a community coroner in Melfort, Sask., at the time.
In some respects, the Humboldt Broncos crash — which brought together a nation in collective grief — seems like yesterday. But then, it seems like a long time ago.
Rare does a day go by that Xavier Labelle, now 19, doesn’t think of that time.
Or of his friends.
“Yeah, I definitely thought of Parker a bit, when I heard we’d be coming to Newfoundland,” said Labelle, whose Saskatoon Buffalo represented Saskatchewan this week at the Canadian senior men’s ‘A’ ball hockey nationals in metro St. John’s.
“And, you know, I just decided to come here and play for everyone … for Parker’s parents, for Parker.”
Labelle still keeps in close contact with the Tobins, and with his former Broncos teammates.
The players keep in touch through group chat. Last month, a bunch of them got together in Kelowna, B.C., for a little boating and a lot of fun.
All of the players have tried to move on — as best they can — from the crash.
For Labelle, part of the healing process involves ball hockey, a sport he loves and a sport he played for six years before the accident.
He doesn’t play a lot of ice hockey anymore, save for some summer hockey and a bit of pick-up in the winter.
“No contact, and part of my game was throwing the shoulder into guys,” he says, grinning. “But ball hockey helps scratch that itch. There’s a lot of compete out there. It’s fun to battle hard again.
“Everybody loves to compete and win, right?”
To see Xavier Labelle in his No. 65 Saskatchewan jersey, patrolling the blueline and playing with jam is, in a word, remarkable considering where he’s come from physically.
He looks like a million bucks, and is grateful for the compliment, but does admit, “I’ve got a couple things that bother me, but nothing that keeps me from playing.”
Labelle spent 62 days in hospital, suffering from a fractured skull, a concussion, internal bleeding and about 20 broken bones, including 13 in his spine. He also had some nerve damage affecting his legs and left arm.
“The docs want me to keep in shape,” he says, “so the body doesn’t deteriorate quickly.
“Mainly though,” he says with twinkle in the eye, “I play because it’s a lot of fun.”
How about his mental recovery?
That, we are happy to report, is coming along quite fine, as well.
Last season, Labelle joined the Saskatoon Blades’ front office staff. Ironically, years earlier he had attended three straight training camps for the Western Hockey League junior team as a player in 2014, ’15 and ’16.
Labelle learned the ropes in the front office, focusing primarily on video. Goes without saying he’d like to make a career in hockey, but he’s not throwing all his apples into the one cart: in the fall, he’ll be doing kinesiology courses at the University of Saskatchewan.
“Between work (with the Blades), and doing my own physio and now school, I will be busy,” he said.
“That’s the focus now. I’m looking forward to moving forward.”
He’s enjoyed his stay in Newfoundland, his first trip this far east. He’s gotten out to explore St. John’s, and hike the trails in and around the city.
He hasn’t gotten to Conception Bay North. The Tobins don’t live there anymore, and he wouldn’t be able to get out to that lovely area of the province anyway, what with a daily playing schedule.
But he thinks of Parker Tobin a lot, just as he does the others. The Broncos were a close group, but there were no cliques in the dressing room. Kind of like a one for all, all for one type of thing.
Xavier doesn’t remember Parker with his teammate’s number stitched on his gloves, or inked on his stick, or anything like that.
But he has pictures of Parker, and every now and then he’ll look at them, and the others.
We don’t know this to be true, but we wonder if he leafed through the photos of Parker Tobin before flying to Newfoundland, back to the young goalie’s roots.
We wonder if he thought about winning a championship in this province. And how cool that would be.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort
Xavier Labelle isn’t the only player on the Saskatoon Buffalo men’s ‘A’ ball hockey squad with a connection to the Humboldt Broncos.
One of Saskatoon’s goaltenders is Brandon Schatz, whose brother, Logan, was the Humboldt team captain.
Besides starring with the Broncos in the Saskatchewan Junior A Hockey League, Logan Schatz was an elite ball hockey player, having been part of Canada’s national under-20 team that won a silver medal in the 2016 world junior ball hockey championship in Sheffield, England.
Steve Power of St. John’s was on the team’s coaching staff.
In his honour, the Canadian Ball Hockey Association created the Logan Schatz Award, given to the top junior male ball hockey player in Canada.
The 2018 winner was Brent Broaders of Tilting, Fogo Island.