Ryan Smith was sleeping. Sitting across from him, Philippe Daoust was busy on his phone. Hunter Brazier was at home sick.
Most French River Rapids players were either dozing or looking at their digital devices during the ride back from Kirkland Lake on Jan. 4 when their bus suddenly left the highway at 80 kilometres an hour and went down an eight-foot embankment, before coming to rest in a farmer’s field.
“I was a little surprised, a little shaken up, but a couple of days off really helped and I’m doing pretty good now,” said Smith, 16, a forward for the Rapids and a Sudbury Wolves prospect. “I woke up right as we were going off the road. I remember the bus shaking. We were on one side of the bus at one point. That’s all I really remember.”
Daoust said the entire incident happened quickly.
“I saw Ryan sleeping, I was on my phone texting my parents, and when it happened I saw Ryan get up really quickly,” recalled Daoust, a 17-year-old forward and the Rapids’ leading scorer. “He was freaked out a little bit. No one was expecting it.”
While shaken up, all those aboard the bus escaped without serious injuries.
Brazier, a forward from Val Caron and an Oshawa Generals draft pick, said it was just luck that he wasn’t on the bus when the crash occurred.
“Everyone’s good,” said Brazier, who turned 17 on Monday. “A few bumps and bruises, but everyone is doing well.”
The Rapids’ following two games, on Jan. 5 and Jan. 7, were postponed. They returned to action on Jan. 12, suffering a 6-1 loss to the Hearst Lumberjacks, then a 4-2 defeat to Soo Thunderbirds the following day.
“It took a couple games,” Smith said. “We weren’t that prepared, because what happened was still in the backs of our heads. We had a week off with some practices, so we were a little rusty for that first game. But after the first game, we’ve been fine.”
Daoust said the extra rest was needed.
“Those were two physical teams (Hearst and the Soo), so getting back into things with two tough teams like that, I think it was good for us to get back into the rhythm, getting momentum back into it,” Daoust said. “It was a little weird, because some kids were still a little sore.”
While the crash happened only two weeks ago, the Rapids said they’re ready to move ahead with the rest of their season and make a push for the playoffs.
French River is 12-25-2-1, putting them in last place in the East Division of the NOJHL, but the post-season isn’t out of reach.
“The coaches are really pushing us to stay focused and they’re trying to give us momentum to go into these weekends, because these weekends are big weekends,” Daoust said. “We’re not out of the playoffs and all of the boys are still very excited about it. The coaches are pushing us to make the playoffs.”
If the Rapids qualify for the post-season, it will be a first for the franchise, which was founded in 2015.
“Us boys and the coaching staff really want that for the community and for ourselves as well,” said Daoust, who hails from Barrie, but has family in Noelville.
Making the playoffs this season would be a game-changer for the franchise going forward, he added.
“It would lead to better recruiting, a lot more players would be more interested in coming here, and I think it’d be a lot easier to make the playoffs in the next few years,” Daoust said. “We just have to get that first out of the way. Make the playoffs and more players will be more interested in coming here, even though it’s a small town. It’s a very good town, with lots of passionate people. That’s what you want.”
The Powassan Voodoos, fifth in the East Division, are 15 points ahead of the sixth-place Rapids.
“We still play Powassan another five times,” Daoust said. “Those are four-point games. As a team, we really think we’re still in the bubble. No one is discouraged, everyone is excited and want to play their hearts out to make the playoffs.”
Daoust, who leads the Rapids with 37 points in 40 games, said the Rapids need to improve on their puck possession and to make life a little more difficult for the opposing team’s goaltender.
“We need to control the puck a little bit more in the offensive zone,” Daoust said. “And I think we need to try to get more shots on net and drive the net a little bit. Some games, we may have close to 50 shots, but those 50 shots don’t have a rebound because we’re not crashing the net, we’re not driving the net. If we start doing that we might score some goals, help get us back into it.”
Smith echoed Daoust’s thoughts.
“We need to get the puck into the offensive zone and work harder,” Smith said.
Still, there are plenty of positives to build on.
“Our puck from defence to offence, I think we’re getting a lot better at that,” Daoust said. “That’s what’s giving us a few more chances, getting us a few more shots on net. Our transition game is getting better every game.”
Having a positive outlook, added Smith, who has 11 goals and 10 assists in 40 games.
“We’ve got to continue working hard, keep it going,” he said.
Brazier has posted 17 goals and eight assists in 39 games. He acknowledged the tough road ahead for the Rapids, but said players and staff are dedicated to putting forth their best efforts the rest of the season.”
“We just gotta grind it out and we’ve got a good shot to make the playoffs,” Brazier said. “We definitely have the talent and will to be that team. We just gotta put all the pieces all together.”
The Rapids visit the Crunch in Cochrane on Friday for a 7 p.m. puck drop at Tim Horton Event Centre. On Saturday, they head to Hearst for a 7 p.m. start versus the Lumberjacks at Claude Larose Arena.