An early morning crash of their team bus in western Massachusetts left the Albany River Rats both in a state of shock and with a sense of relief that it could have been worse.
Four players and a radio broadcaster were hospitalized overnight at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Mass., with what Massachusetts state police called serious injuries.
They were identified as forward Nicolas Blanchard, 21; defenseman Casey Borer, 23; forward Joe Jensen, 26; defenseman Jonathan Paiement, 23; and radio color commentator John Hennessy. The Yankee Trails coach carrying the team’s players, coaches, broadcasters and support staff slid in wintry conditions on I-90, struck a guardrail and flipped on its side shortly before 3:30 a.m. in the Berkshire County town of Becket, Mass., some 56 miles from Albany.
“We’re all just kind of happy that nothing was too serious and everyone survived,” said third-year Rats defenseman Brett Carson, who escaped the accident unscathed. “Everyone is counting their blessings.”
Berkshire Medical Center referred comment on the patients’ condition to the Rats, who issued a statement Thursday afternoon which said they were unable to provide any further information about the extent of the injuries.
Jim Rutherford, general manager for the Carolina Hurricanes, Albany’s National Hockey League parent team, told the Raleigh News & Observer before the team’s game on Long Island Thursday night that the injuries were varied.
“There are cuts, bruises, shoulders, concussions, a fractured neck,” Rutherford said. “It’s a very unfortunate accident, but it could have been worse.”
The team was traveling back to Albany following its 3-2 shootout loss Wednesday night in Lowell, Mass. Its initial bus broke down with mechanical problems only about 20 minutes into the roughly three-hour drive.
A replacement bus sent to pick up the team was the one that crashed.
“I was asleep when it happened and all of a sudden I heard somebody yell, ‘Hang on,’ ” said play-by-play broadcaster and director of media relations Owen Newkirk, who suffered a mild concussion in the accident.
“I sat up and just grabbed the seat. I just remember hanging on and thinking, ‘This is going to hurt.’ I closed my eyes, and the rest is a bit of a blur.”
Massachusetts state police said the bus was traveling westbound in a snowstorm on I-90 when the accident occurred at 3:25 a.m. Rats head coach-GM Jeff Daniels said all 29 people on board were able to get off the bus under their own power.
Police said five people were transported to BMC by ambulance, three with what appeared to be serious injuries, two complaining of neck pain. The other 24 people boarded a separate bus to the hospital, where each was evaluated before being released.
“Guys are banged up, just from the impact of the crash, from being tossed from one side of the bus to the other and flipping around,” Daniels said. “Some guys on the bus are cut, have stitches, whiplash; some guys are concussed. A lot of bumps and bruises and on top of that, the mental part of being in a crash like that and being able to walk away.”
As players and personnel crawled out windows and through a hatch in the bus roof, the driver, Stanley Novak of Glenmont, and Albany assistant coach Geordie Kinnear were able to steer them away from oncoming traffic and into the center median.
Daniels said it took 20 to 25 minutes for fire trucks and medical personnel to arrive on the scene.
“We ended up on the guardrail with the front of the bus still in the roadway,” he said. “At that point, guys were in shock, not realizing we were still on the highway with semi trucks blowing by us at a pretty good speed. From what I heard, three just missed us.
“Guys kind of reassessed where they were at and started climbing out to a common area between the two highways. At that point, you could definitely tell who were a little banged up and who needed some treatment.”
A third team bus brought the team back to Albany, arriving at 11:04 a.m. It pulled inside the Times Union Center, and players were led away from a large crowd of media and toward the team dressing room.
Several players reported to be OK as they walked to their cars in the adjacent parking garage.
“We’ve had a couple of breakdowns and mechanical issues and things like that, but never anything even approaching this,” Albany president and CEO Garen Szablewski said. “No question, everybody here is somewhat shaken up and trying their best to go about the daily routine, but obviously, this is overshadowing everything else right now.”
A fourth bus was sent to the accident scene to retrieve the broadcast and players equipment and any personal effects, arriving back in Albany around 1:15 p.m.
“Our gear was scattered all over the road,” Daniels said. “From what I heard, Justin Peters’ goal mask was squashed flat like a pancake, so we wouldn’t even have equipment to play, let alone players in their mental state right now. We’re going to meet here as a group [today]. I want to touch base with the team and see where they’re at after a night of sleeping on it.
“Obviously, that’s a big wake-up call, walking away from that bus and knowing how close you were to not walking off.”
Szablewski said that neighboring American Hockey League teams had offered to lend the Rats some of their equipment, if necessary.
“There’s some stuff that came back that looks fine like it’s usable and just needs to be dried off and taken care of,” he said. “A lot of stuff didn’t come back or came back in many, many pieces. It appears to be a lot of volume of equipment, but we’re not sure if it’s functional or not. They’re unnpacking it and assessing it along the way. That said, we probably have less of an issue with the equipment than we do with the health of our players.”
Daniels spoke with the Hurricanes and hopes to have a counselor on hand to meet with the team as a group and players individually, if needed, to discuss the accident, the first serious incident in the team’s 151⁄2 seasons.
The AHL is a 29-member league based in Springfield, Mass., and generally concentrated in the Northeast. Busing is the most frequent mode of travel for every team.
“We’ve been fortunate over the years not to have had an accident like that, and I think even more fortunate that this accident had the outcome that it did,” AHL president Dave Andrews said. “We have a thousand games a year being played and have had for over 70 years. The mode of travel is bus, and the time of year is winter. There are hazards there, and you hope that you never run into them like that. We’re just happy that the outcome was not far worse.”
Neither Andrews nor AHL vice president of communications Jason Chaimovitch can remember a similar accident in the league’s history. The Elmira Jackals of the ECHL, a Double-A level league to the AHL’s Triple-A level, saw several players injured in a bus accident in November 2007.
“You feel pretty helpless. All you can really do is offer your support both personally and as a league to the organization, and be there for them in any way that you can,” Andrews said. “This hockey business in a way is one big family. Our teams have been contacting Garen and contacting us with the mindset of, ‘How can we help?’ ”
Albany team captain Tim Conboy did not accompany the team to Lowell. He stayed behind serving the fourth and final game of an AHL suspension, and was recalled by Carolina on Thursday morning.
“My wife dropped me off at the airport and I’m checking my stuff in, and the lady asked if I was on the River Rats bus crash,” Conboy said. “I was like, ‘What? You’ve got to be kidding.’ I’m hoping the guys are all right.”
The Rats are 24-25-3-3 with 25 games remaining in the 80-game regular season, which ends on April 11.
“I was actually sleeping, but I heard someone yell and I kind of woke up as it was happening,” Carson said of the accident. “I got thrown around a bit, but got out of it pretty lucky.
“Hockey is kind of secondary right now. We’re just hoping that we’re all going to come together here and get through this. Hopefully, we’ll go on a little push when hockey does come back around.”