A Kind Of Christmas Story

Dave TrembleyCorrespondent IDecember 24, 2009

A Kind of Christmas Story

On Christmas Eve, a kind of story from 2009 that is about sports, but also really about overcoming obstacles. It happened in February of this year in a small community in the rural province of New Brunswick, Canada.  The sports part of the story was that a small high school basketball team, the Bathurst High School Phantoms won the New Brunswick Provincial Basketball Championship, handily defeating the Campobello Vikings 82-50 before an estimated crowd of 1500 fans in the University of New Brunswick gym.

It might be well enough to leave at that, to say “good for the high school basketball team winning their Provincial Championship.” But then, so what?  None of us have ever heard of this team, let alone the school, or even Bathurst, New Brunswick.

What made this one single game noteworthy for sports fans (perhaps anywhere) was that the victory marked the tipping point of a small,otherwise forgettable school’s determination to overcome a devastating tragedy. In doing so, they showed the collective power of will, courage,  and purpose.

Only a year before, seven teenage boys from the Bathurst High School basketball team were killed in a head on collision when the vehicle they were travelling home from a basketball game slid on icy roads into an oncoming transport truck. The accident occurred just after midnight as the team was returning from a basketball contest.

The impact of the collision tore the fifteen passenger van open, and ultimately to shreds. Five of the boys were seventeen years old, one was sixteen and one, fifteen. Also killed in the terrible collision was the wife of the team’s head coach. The coach, two of his daughters, and two players, survived the crash.

Eight deaths in a blink of an eye.

With half of the team tragically killed, and the community reeling in shock in the aftermath of the horrific crash, the basketball program at Bathurst High was suspended, and in the view of some, likely terminated for good. The perils of travelling with young athletes on winter roads could not have been made more poignant, the entire community buckling under the heightened weight of grief.  

But then, sometime later, the unexpected. Some of the families whose sons were killed that night stepped forward and said “no” to cancelling the school’s basketball program, that sports were important for the life of the school, the community, and important to the lives of young athletes. The program was reinstated, and the team, regrouping under a new head coach, started over.

It was not easy. For the players who were not killed in the vehicle that crashed, the paralyzing question of why remained, in addition to the burdens of guilt and bewilderment. But somehow, the team pulled together and gelled with the common purpose of honouring the memory of their high school friends. Going into the provincial championship, the team had strung a twenty-six game winning streak together, against unfathomable odds.

And then, another unforeseen obstacle was thrown at the teenage boys: just days before the team’s regional playoff game leading into the provincial championship, their head coach collapsed on the floor during practice. Stunned, the boys looked on as medical attention was urgently called for. Their coach was taken to emergency.

Hospitalized from a heart attack, the team was turned over to two assistant coaches who guided them through the regional playoffs and into the provincial championship.

At tipoff, the Bathurst High School Phantoms poured everything they had into the game, scoring the first eleven points and never surrendering the lead. You might say they won the game easily, but knowing what we do about the obstacles they had to overcome, that would not be true.

After the game their assistant head coach Mike Parkhill was quoted as saying, “It's a tribute to the character of these guys that they don't forget their friends that they lost but, at the same time, this is really about them as well and they deserve everything they get. They're a great group of kids.”

I imagine the point of all this,today on Christmas Eve, would be something like: sometimes sports comes to us in the form of incredible fireworks cascading through the night sky- fireworks provided by a superstar athlete like LeBron James making an incredible slam, Alexander Ovechkin scoring a sensational goal , Santonio Holmes making that Super Bowl winning catch in the end zone in Tampa. But then sometimes sports comes to us in the form of something really simple: throwing a football to a ten year old kid in your backyard, or something that barely catches your attention in the corner of your eye, like a remote high school basketball team that none of us has ever heard of, the Bathurst High School Phantoms, winning the most important game of their lives.