By Nancy Kelly
Memories of a horrific bus accident that claimed the life of seven members of the Bathurst High School boys’ basketball team in 2008 are never far off for Paul Robichaud, coach of the Bathurst Phantom’s girls’ basketball team.
Robichaud brought his girls’ squad to the Valley Jan. 11-12, the anniversary of the crash, for West Kings District High School’s girls basketball tournament. West Kings’ coach Bill Griffin, who was living in New Brunswick and coaching high school basketball at the time of the crash, was pleased to welcome the Bathurst Phantoms for the first time.
“That school was affected by such a terrible tragedy and it touched so many people,” said Griffin, who reached out to Robichaud several years ago to invite the Phantoms to West Kings.
“I am glad we could make this happen,” he added.
The tournament also hosted teams from Middleton Regional High School, Central Kings, and Lower Sackville’s Millwood High School.
Robichaud was teaching and coaching at Bathurst High School at the time of the crash that killed eight people — seven basketball players and the coach’s wife — and injured four others travelling in a passenger van carrying the Bathurst High School Phantoms boys’ basketball team. The van collided with a transport truck on slippery roads not far from Bathurst en route home from attending a basketball tournament in Moncton.
“This the first year since that we have played on the anniversary of the accident,” said Robichaud, explaining in the first few years after, he had girls on the team related to the players who died in the accident.
“Until this year, we haven’t played on that weekend out of respect for their loss.”
But with a new generation of players on the bench, Robichaud felt the time had come to take to the court again on Jan. 12.
“We talked it over with the kids and their parents and the support to travel to Nova Scotia this weekend was there.”
Since the bus crash, Robichaud says communication between schools, especially about weather conditions, has improved dramatically.
“Back then, the decision to stay or go was left up to the coaches. Now the school principals are in contact and make the decisions about travel,” which Robichaud says is “a fact of life” for school and league sports teams in rural New Brunswick. The Phantoms broke up their seven-hour travel time to the Valley by staying in Truro overnight on the way down and resting in Moncton overnight on the way home. They overnighted in Kingston while in the Valley.
“We now limit our time on the road to between three and four hours,” said Robichaud.
The crash also impacted travel protocols for local school sports teams. George Humphreys, who has been coaching with the West Kings boys basketball program for 20 years, agreed travel rules and awareness of weather and road conditions have tightened up considerably and there are no risks taken when it comes to student travel.
“After what happened in Bathurst, you know it’s just not worth it.”
Despite the heartbreaking toll the accident took on staff and students at Bathurst High School and the community as a whole, Robichaud said the event has not “changed the culture of who we are.” He remains an advocate for school sports, seeing them as an important component in the student learning experience.
“To be part of a team is so important for kids. They learn so much.”