Humboldt Broncos crash survivor Tyler Smith talks about power of story at mental health event

ELORA – Tyler Smith has no memory of the worst day of his life.

Yet on that day, April 6, 2018, everything changed for the former Humboldt Broncos player.

Say “Humboldt Broncos” and just about everyone recalls the tragic story of a bus full of Junior ‘A’ hockey players being struck by a transport truck near Armley, Saskatchewan, killing 16 on the bus including the driver and coach. There were 13 survivors.

The crash made international headlines and spawned many initiatives, such as #PutYourSticksOut and Green day, an initiative in support of organ donation.

Smith was the guest speaker at an event on Nov. 8 organized by the County of Wellington, The Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington, and HERE4Hope, a collaborative program that focuses on suicide prevention.

He told his story of physical recovery after the accident – he had a long list of injuries including having a stroke, a broken collarbone that caused nerve damage, six inches of his small intestine were removed, a broken shoulder blade, a punctured lung and two broken ribs. 

But it was the emotional journey that was the hard work.

“I just wanted to put all of my energy into my physical recovery because for so long, I thought if I’m going to heal physically, everything else will just follow. That’s not how it works,” he said.

Smith described himself as a social person who wants to be sure everyone is having a good time.

He loves his family and had great opportunities as a kid to discover what he wanted to be as a grown up.

His talent for sport lead him to hockey and he worked long and hard to get a chance to play for a Junior ‘A’ team.

Playing for the Humboldt Broncos was like “coming home,” he said.

The team focused on hockey but also on helping the community – shoveling snow after big snowfalls and playing hockey with children with special needs, for example.

‘Damn good people’

“As soon as I got into the room, it felt like home. It felt like a breath of fresh air. Like, this is what it’s all about,” Smith said.

“Darcy (team coach Darcy Haugan) did such a good job of creating a team of good hockey players, but also just damn good people, like really good people.”

Smith spoke about dealing with grief and especially survivor’s grief after the accident. Why did he survive when these other beautiful people died? What should he do with his life now that he’s been granted this gift of life?

Smith said he didn’t want to burden people with his problems, and he feared being judged and showing shame and weakness. So he kept his demons to himself.

‘Suffering in silence’

“While I was suffering in silence, while I was bottling everything up, while I was just throwing it on the backburner and waiting and waiting and waiting for somebody to come to me or something to happen … What I was doing by waiting was actually just prolonging the suffering that was going on inside my mind.”

Smith started drinking a lot to distract himself and had uncharacteristic angry outbursts.

He was mostly troubled by the fact that he couldn’t cry – not for any of it, not even after reading all the news reports and knowing the impact the deaths had on loved ones.

Until the 2018 NHL Awards ceremony in Las Vegas.

Just a few months after the crash, coach Haugan was to receive the inaugural Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award posthumously. 

The award is given to a person who has positively impacted their community, culture or society through the game of hockey, and on stage were the 13 survivors, and Haugan’s wife and children.

Then the tears

That’s when the tears came, he said.

“And now we’re on stage accepting this award and like I said, I didn’t cry much but boy did the tears come. I cried on national television, in front of all my role models,” he said.

“But this was also the first time that my mind and body was like, ‘Alright, dude, we just gotta let this happen. I’m sorry that it’s this time, and I’m sorry that it’s in front of everybody.’”

It happened again at the Humboldt home opener.

“And once again, on national television for the second time, I bawled my eyes out hysterically, like so hard. I remember being on that red carpet and I didn’t even have enough strength in my body to stand. And it came for 45 minutes straight. I could not stop it.”

He decided to play for the Humboldt Broncos again, but realized in hindsight he was in it for the wrong reasons.

“I thought to myself, I’m a man, I’m an athlete, and I’m going to do everything in my power to get back and play for everybody that supported us,” said Smith.

“Everybody that was there for us that day, everybody that was involved that day, every family, every single person that lost somebody that day, I’m going to play for them. I’m not going to play for myself, I’m gonna play for them.”

But it was too hard and he realized he wasn’t having fun and didn’t have the heart for hockey. So he quit.

That’s when he found a therapist and, in doing so, he found a sounding board and validation for his feelings.

“That’s exactly what I needed. I just needed that space. I just needed that culture. That made me feel like alright, like, I can do this,” he said.

After some time and work on himself, he did his first public speaking gig. He thought it would be kids who would come up afterwards to talk and maybe get an autograph.

“But it was adults waiting for me. It was adults waiting to share their story. It was adults in tears. It was adults coming to hug me. And I’m like, what’s going on right now?”

That his story resonated with other people was a revelation to Smith.

“Once you take that first step, like you actually take that first step and put yourself first and take care of your mental health and put your story at the forefront of your mind, that is actually one of the most brave, courageous and strong things that you can do for yourself,” he said.

“So, celebrate your small victories, be proud of yourself, realize how far you’ve come. And understand that your story matters.”

As well as playing hockey, Smith and his girlfriend Kat are known for winning Amazing Race Season 9.

He dedicated the race to the Humboldt Broncos and all the people who helped him in his recovery.

But during the race, he was ready to quit when Kat told him “remember who you’re playing for.”

He’s still processing, still working on his recovery, but he’s in a much better mental space now, he said. And his advice is to share your story, listen to other people’s stories, and realize that everyone is going through something.

“Mental health is not a battle to be won; it’s a journey to be taken,” he said. “Understand that your story matters.”

Suicide and men

Smith’s talk ties in beautifully with the new focus of HERE4Hope, said program manager Cecelia Marie Roberts. She noted 75 per cent of people who die by suicide are men.

“Often no one knows they are struggling,” she said, adding there’s a link between traditional masculine norms – being strong, stoic and able to handle things on their own – and a resistance to seeking help and using mental health services.

She said substance use, loneliness and depression are the strongest risk factors for suicidal behavior in men.

“So it’s time, it’s time to get our men talking about what it means to be a man and their mental health,” she said. “It’s time that we advocate for some increased depression screening with our men. It’s time for us to help them to understand the importance of that, and to see it happening more and more. 

“But it’s also time to create resources for men that are struggling, that are alone, particularly men who may be struggling through separation and divorce.”

Roberts said HERE4Hope will be reaching out to men in the community to help them understand the programs and resources men might use that could help.

Information will be posted on the HERE4Hope website as the programs and initiatives get underway.

“Let’s get men talking,” she said. “Let’s give hope a voice.”