By Matt Smith
HUMBOLDT, Saskatchewan (Reuters) - Fifteen people were killed when a bus carrying a Canadian junior ice hockey team collided with a truck in Saskatchewan province, police said on Saturday, in one of the worst disasters to strike Canada's sporting community.
The tragedy sent shock waves through the hockey-loving country and engulfed the home of the Humboldt Broncos hockey team, a small farming town of fewer than 6,000 people, in grief. Fourteen survivors were still in hospital, with some in critical condition, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said.
The accident occurred at about 5 p.m. on Friday near the Tisdale area, around 185 miles (300 km) north of Regina.
"Our Broncos family is in shock as we try to come to grips with our incredible loss," Kevin Garinger, the team's president, said in a statement.
The players had been on their way to compete in Game 5 of a playoff series against the Nipawin Hawks when the bus they were traveling in collided with a semi-trailer.
The Hawks' president, Darren Opp, told the Globe and Mail newspaper that the truck T-boned the players' bus. "It's a horrible accident, my God," he said. "It's very, very bad."
The driver of the tractor trailer was not injured in the crash, RCMP Saskatchewan assistant commissioner Curtis Zablocki told a media conference. He said the driver was initially detained, but later released.
Zablocki said it was too early to comment on the cause of the collision and that the RCMP is continuing its investigation, which will examine the road, weather and mechanical condition of both vehicles.
Citing relatives, the Canadian Press reported that the Broncos' head coach Darcy Haugan and the team's 20-year-old captain, Logan Schatz, were among those killed.
Many social media users posted Haugan's photograph alongside messages of shock and sympathy, and the hashtags #prayersforhumboldt and #humboldtstrong.
"God bless Darcy Haugan for being an incredible mentor and coach to young hockey players and prayers for his family to help cope with their immense loss," the Western Provinces Hockey Association wrote on Twitter.
National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman said the NHL mourned the passing of those who died "and offers strength and comfort to those injured while traveling to play and be part of a game they loved."
Ice hockey teams around the world expressed shock and paid tribute to the Broncos.
A steady stream of people arrived at Humboldt's Elgar Petersen sports arena on Saturday, consoling the grieving families and offering flowers. Counseling services for the victims' relatives were offered nearby.
"We woke up to the reality of what happened last night," Humboldt Mayor Rob Muench told Reuters. "It has been a tragedy nobody would have imagined. It's very tough, but I have been trying to get the message out that we will get through this, we will see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Condolences poured in from both current and former players, sports organizations and political leaders.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the entire country was in shock and mourning as the details of the tragedy emerged. Canada's hockey family was a close one, he said.
"We are heartbroken knowing many of those we lost had their entire lives in front of them," he said in a statement.
U.S. President Donald Trump said in a Twitter post that he spoke with Trudeau "to pay my highest respect and condolences to the families of the terrible Humboldt Team tragedy. May God be with them all!"
Pastor Jordan Gadsby of Nipawin's Apostolic Church said hundreds of people, including parents and relatives of players on the bus, had gathered at the church late on Friday to seek information and solace.
"The worst part of the night was watching parents waiting for news of their kids," he said. "There's not a lot we can do. It's a terrible thing that happened."
For some, the tragedy revived painful memories of a bus crash in the province in December 1986 that killed four young players from the Swift Current Broncos ice hockey team.
An online fundraising campaign for the affected players and their families was set up late on Friday by the mother of a former Broncos teammate with an initial target of $10,000.
By Saturday evening, it had raised more than $2.1 million. (https://www.gofundme.com/funds-for-humboldt-broncos)
"Stay Hockey family strong," wrote one donor on the GoFundMe site who said he was a coach from rural Saskatchewan.
(Reporting by Matt Smith in Humboldt; Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and Frank Pingue in Augusta, Georgia; Writing by Denny Thomas and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Tom Brown and G Crosse)