The Pas is located in northwest Manitoba and 660 miles from the North Dakota border. Curt Giles was born and raised there with a rural Canadian’s passion for hockey.
When Giles was 14, he was allowed by his parents to move 600 miles to Humboldt, Saskatchewan, where he would start his true pursuit of a hockey career with the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
“It’s a great little farming town of around 6,000, and that hockey team is everything to the people,’’ Giles said. “It’s small town Canada at its best. I can only imagine the broken hearts in Humboldt this morning.’’
Late on Friday afternoon, the Broncos were traveling two hours north to Nipawin on Canada Hwy. 35 for the fifth game of a series in the SJHL semifinals. The Broncos had suffered a three-overtime loss on Wednesday night to fall behind 3-1 in the best-of-7 series.
“Highway 35 is one of the main roads up there,’’ Giles said. “The other road at that intersection, 335 … that was just kind of a country road when I was playing in the league.’’
There was a crash involving the Broncos bus and a semi-trailer truck. There were 14 dead from the crash and 14 more hospitalized when Giles was on the phone late Saturday morning.
“I received a text about the crash early this morning,’’ Giles said. “Terrible. The hockey team is the anchor of that town. All the players live with a host family. I lived with the Grunskys for two years. Great people.
“You get to know all the host families. They become your extended family.’’
The Grunskys have passed away since Giles played in Humboldt for the seasons of 1973-74 and 1974-75. His grandparents also have died.
“They lived in Nipawin, so I’m very familiar with that town, too,’’ Giles said.
Giles said the SJHL was a Tier II junior league that received no attention from NHL scouts and little from U.S. college recruiters.
“Denver was going into Saskatchewan for a number of years,’’ Giles said. “Bruce McLeod was working at UMD and recruited me from Humboldt to play for the Bulldogs.’’
Giles was 16 when he played his first game for Minnesota Duluth in the fall of 1975. He played four seasons for the Bulldogs, was drafted in the fourth round by the North Stars, played 42 games for the Stars’ farm club in Oklahoma City, and then 14 years as a hip-checking defenseman in the NHL … with 11 of those with the North Stars.
He has been the coach at Edina High School since 1999. On a day such as Saturday, he thinks about the players that he’s connected with and who have gone on off to play in hockey’s bus leagues.
“You start recalling the bus rides that you took across Canada to play hockey games – about all the junior players that are still traveling by bus in Canada and the United States,’’ Giles said.
“The roads up there were like what you have in northwest Minnesota. The roads might be better now, and this was daytime, but those night rides across Saskatchewan in the middle of winter were something to remember.’’