2017-2018 Humboldt Broncos. Photo from The Globe and Mail.

On April 6, 2018, a bus associated with the Humboldt Broncos Junior Hockey Team crashed in rural Saskatchewan, Canada, killing 16 people. The national and international response was astounding, including a $15 million GoFundMe campaign (the largest ever in Canada) along with another $1.5 million donated directly to the team over just 12 days. Between consistent features in sport media outlets, shout outs from the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, a Tim Horton’s donut controversy, and a large participatory movement of “putting your sticks out for the boys,” the tragedy was seemingly omnipresent.

Among the social media buzz, Québec-based writer and activist Nora Loreto commented in a twitter thread that the “maleness, the youthfulness and the whiteness of the victims are, of course, playing a significant role” in this uptake. Public response to her comments was swift and included over 5000 replies to her tweet, death threats, an attempted boycott, and multiple editorials. While not all of the reactions were negative, the public response to Loreto’s critique – which was almost as prompt and passionate as the philanthropy toward the players and families – offers us the opportunity to think through the ways in which power and politics play out in the Twittersphere and digital spaces more broadly. The attack on Loreto provided interesting points through which we can critically unpack ideas of nationalism, rurality, and the hockey community in the context of Canadian sport.

Loreto is no stranger to ruffling feathers and providing alternative perspectives in the media. From issues such as the politics of student associations in Canadian Higher Education to the weaponization of free speech in activist organizations, Loreto’s writing is provocative and political. Twitter, on the other hand, is a space where brevity is necessary and the trolling or heckling of journalists is commonplace. So we might have expected a passionate response to Loreto’s tweets. However, the level of sophistication of the response to Loreto – including death threats and an attempted boycott of her work – indicates that this backlash was far more systematic than simple trolling or click-baiting. Therefore, these ideas of sporting nationalism, rural idylls, and identity politics have implications beyond the collective imagination, as they effectively policed public reaction and punished Loreto’s critical reading of the public response to the tragedy in tangible ways.

Furthermore, there were a few conundrums evident in these online discussions—the first of which was related to the notion of time. Many people indicated that immediately following a tragedy, critical readings are inappropriate. This is ironic, given that social media platforms enable the rapid sharing of information about the event in the first place. Frankly, without social media there is no way that news of the crash would have spread so prolifically from rural Saskatchewan around the world. Many people seem to want to consume news of tragedy immediately, but more critical analysis needs to wait.

Secondly, many Internet users seem to have a distorted idea of where Canadians live. Many responses drew on the idea that we (Canadians) “have all been on that bus.” For a country with more than 80% of the population living in urban centres (with roughly 30% of all Canadians living in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver) – it seems inaccurate to claim that we have all spent hours on a school bus on a long prairie highway.

Finally, the response to Loreto’s comments invoked some emotional narratives about a communal identity associated with Canadian hockey. One of the dialogues noted that “the hockey community is like a family regardless of race or religion. We grieve for our family.” While Loreto’s critique was explicitly about those who were not implicated in such a community, readers actively defended the integrity of this imagined hockey community and provided compelling individual stories to demonstrate the inclusiveness of hockey culture. These individual examples, however, miss the point. Loreto’s comments were about the way in which the public responded to the tragedy, not a critique of hockey or hockey culture. Twitter users were defensive of this hockey community and how it brings Canadians together – suspiciously defensive. Such defensiveness maybe reflect an awareness that Canadian demographics are changing and resulting in different patterns of sport participation, particularly in rural areas where low populations are often transient due to volatile resource-based economies. While it is beyond the scope of this conversation to make any clear conclusions, it appears that the role of hockey in Canada is coming into question. The attack on Loreto may be emblematic of much larger social issues related to hockey and Canadian society.

In summary, a reading of the way coverage of the Humboldt tragedy was policed provided several points of reflections for Canadians. This conversation provided a point of entry to think about contemporary sporting nationalisms, imagined rural identities, and the construction of sporting communities. Perhaps these ideas are changing in Canada and these expressions are how Canadians are working through some growing pains. What is more certain from this reading is that these ideas have substantial implications when they are invoked in digital spaces and lead to tangible, real world, sometimes horrific outcomes (e.g., death threats both on and offline). As media coverage continues, Canadians are now waiting to hear how the $15 million will be used – as it turns out, many were eager to throw money at a cause without any specific plans or clear indication for how it would be used.

Kyle Rich (@KRich052) is an Assistant Professor at Brock University in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies. His research focuses on the intersection of sport, recreation, and rurality in Canada.

Ann Pegoraro (@SportMgmtProf) is a Full Professor in the School of Human Kinetics at Laurentian University. Her research focuses on the intersection of the digital world and sport.