The NOJHL’s French River Rapids were returning from Kirkland Lake, Ont., when their bus hurtled off the highway and down an eight-foot embankment at 80 kilometers an hour early Saturday morning. There were no major injuries.
The way Paul Frustaglio sees it, the only thing that saved the French River Rapids from suffering the same fate as the Humboldt Broncos was that his deceased son was watching over him and protecting him. For the second time in nine months, a Jr. A hockey team in Canada was involved in a bus accident on a rural highway. Thankfully, this one did not end in tragedy.
En route back home from Kirkland Lake, Ont., after a 7-2 loss to the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners in the Northern Ontario Jr. League, the Rapids’ bus went hurtling off the highway at 80 kilometers an hour (50 miles per hour) and went down an eight-foot embankment before coming to rest in a farmer’s field. According to reports, the bus driver was blinded by the high-beam lights of an oncoming car, crossed the highway and missed a curve in the road. Like the Broncos, the Rapids were almost at their destination. The accident occurred on Route 64, a winding stretch of road that connects the Trans-Canada Highway to Highway 69, which runs from Sudbury to Toronto.
The Rapids were about a half hour from their home base of Noelville, where they were preparing to meet the Timmins Rock Saturday night, when the crash happened at about 1:15 a.m. Frustaglio said he and several players have whiplash and headaches, but aside from that there were no major injuries. It could have been much, much worse. Anyone who has travelled in Northern Ontario is well aware that highways there are built by blasting through rock, which means there is often a wall of unforgiving bedrock not far from the shoulder.
“We’re lucky we ended up in a field,” Frustaglio said. “I don’t know how the bus didn’t tip. Everybody was holding on for dear life. We were just very lucky. There was some sort of intervention, I’m telling you that right now.”
Frustaglio, the GM and owner of the team, was on the bus because he was coaching the team in Kirkland Lake due to the head coach being on a leave of absence. He said he’s not a religious man, but does believe there was some divine intervention involved. Nine years ago, Frustaglio’s son, Evan, was a promising young hockey player in Toronto who fell ill at a hockey tournament in London and died in his father’s arms several days later of the H1N1 influenza epidemic that swept through Ontario. Also on that bus was Evan’s younger brother, 19-year-old Will, who is the Rapids’ second-leading scorer this season. Frustaglio firmly believes they and the Rapids are here to continue playing because his son was looking out for him and Will, who was 10 years old when Evan died.
“He was the angel who saved us,” Frustaglio said. “The bus was tipping and how it came back, I don’t know. It was a miracle. The snow was about a foot-and-a-half to two feet deep and the bus was like a plow going through the snow and nobody could see outside. All you could see was snow. I got thrown to the ground and there was stuff thrown all over the bus. A few kids banged their heads. Kids have headaches and whiplash. I don’t know how it didn’t flip. I just don’t know.”
The crash once again exposed the perils young teenagers who chase their dreams by play a winter sport in rural communities. It was almost nine months to the day after the devastating crash that killed 10 players and six other people connected with the Humboldt Broncos in April. Frustaglio said that as players were walking around the field trying to contact loved ones and billet families after the crash, “they kept saying, ‘Oh my God, this is Humboldt.’ ”
The Rapids, like every other team in the NOJHL, are forced to navigate some difficult highways under sometimes very fierce weather conditions during the season. The bus they were using was one that was formerly used by the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario League. The Wolves were recently outfitted with a new bus, which the Rapids use when the Wolves are not using it. But the Wolves were also on a road trip over the weekend, which relegated the Rapids to the old bus.
Frustaglio said he didn’t believe the bus was equipped with seatbelts, but wasn’t 100 percent sure. TheHockeyNews.com contacted the owner of the bus, Sookram Bus Lines of Sudbury, and was told by a spokesman that the owner of the company is “most aware” of what happened, but could not say whether or not the bus was equipped with seatbelts. A message was left with the owner of the company.
The NOJHL brought mental health counselors from Sudbury in to be available for the players and the league postponed the home game against Timmins Saturday night, as well as a road game Monday night against the Powassan Voodoos.