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For NHL players who played Canada's junior hockey circuit, Friday's bus crash 'hits home'

Washington Capitals center Chandler Stephenson (18) skates with the puck in the first period against the Carolina Hurricanes at Capital One Arena. Photo courtesy of Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON - Before he signed with the Washington Capitals and began to enjoy the glamour of the NHL, Chandler Stephenson was a typical Canadian hockey prospect who created his best memories in two places: on the ice and on the bus, which would ferry Stephenson and his junior league teammates from town to town in Saskatchewan so they could chase their dreams.

"It's kind of your second home," a somber Stephenson said in the Capitals' locker room Saturday morning, less than 12 hours after he found out that a bus carrying a junior hockey league team in Canada had crashed, killing at least 14 people.

The team, the Humboldt Broncos, are based about an hour from Stephenson's hometown of Saskatoon; he was acquainted with three of the players. He wasn't sure of their condition, but Stephenson said one of the players had to be airlifted from the scene with a fractured skull.

"Kind of at a loss for words. Couldn't really believe that something like that could happen. You're on the bus for hours," Stephenson said.

Washington's players were still trying to process Friday night's accident as they returned to practice Saturday morning. Preparations for that night's regular season finale against New Jersey were an afterthought during the session. Scores of players reflected on their roots, including Stephenson, Brett Connolly and Braden Holtby, all of whom played junior league hockey close to Humboldt.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who himself had played junior league hockey in Saskatchewan decades ago, opened his meeting with reporters by not addressing his own roster or the impending payoff push, but rather the tragedy that has rocked Canada and the NHL, which is made up of a majority of Canadian players

"The players come from all over, especially in Canada . . . they're from all over Western Canada. They come and play in a small town, and you're embraced by a small town, and you're the pride of a small town, and you're chasing a dream," Trotz said. "It does hit a little bit home."

Details from the crash were still emerging as Washington's players prepared for Saturday's practice. Connolly tweeted for the first time since January, sending out his condolences to a community that is about 20 hours from his hometown in northern British Columbia.

"Tough news to wake up to this morning," he tweeted. "Sending all my thoughts and prayers to the families and those involved in this tragedy."

Connolly wondered what had happened and how safe he used to feel on buses while traveling in his junior hockey league days with the Prince George Cougars. The road conditions were often ugly and the glare of the sun on Western Canada's plains could be treacherous for drivers, yet Connolly and his teammates never thought anything could happen; they instead bonded over card games, movies and music while they traveled hours from town to town.

"It hits home for a lot of guys . . . part of everybody's junior career, you're on a bus a lot. That's kind of your safe spot," said Connolly, who played junior league hockey in Saskatchewan. "That's where you grow friendships. It's crazy. It doesn't make any sense how that can happen."

Stephenson tuned into a Canadian radio station to listen to Humboldt's mayor address the community of 5,869 Friday night, where citizens were invited to the rink and to church to grieve together. A number of Stephenson's close friends are from his junior league hockey days, he said, relationships that were strengthened by travel and community support. He couldn't fathom the loss.

"Especially a place like Humboldt. It's just a city. To be qualified as a city, I think it's five or ten thousand people," he said. "The Broncos were their everything."

Author information: Roman Stubbs covers University of Maryland athletics for The Washington Post.