April 7 (Reuters) - Ice hockey teams around the world expressed shock and paid tribute on Saturday to the Canadian junior team whose bus was involved in a crash that killed at least 15 people.
The Humboldt Broncos were on their way to compete in a playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks when their bus collided with a tractor trailer about 185 miles (300 km) north of Regina in Saskatchewan.
Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who grew up nearby in Saskatoon and went on to steer the Canadian ice hockey team to back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014, began a pre-game news conference fighting back tears.
"I can't even imagine being a parent, or the wife, or the kids at home, going through something like this," he said.
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"The hockey world is an unbelievable world. You can't make up for loss, you just can't. It's going to rip the heart out of your chest. We pray for those families and think about them."
Sorrow was felt far beyond hockey-loving Canada: the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) carried the Humboldt Broncos logo on its website's homepage and said a moment of silence was scheduled ahead of Saturday's game between Poland and Estonia in Tallinn, Estonia's capital.
Another moment of silence will be observed before Sunday's match-up between Latvia and Kazakhstan in Riga.
"The international ice hockey community extends its sincerest condolences to the families and friends of those involved," IIHF president Rene Fasel said in a statement.
National Hockey League coaches and players also expressed condolences. The Calgary Flames had a Broncos team photo up in their locker room. The Philadelphia Flyers held a moment of silence before their game against the New York Rangers.
Babcock addressed the news conference in front of a backdrop that carried both the Maple Leafs and Broncos logos.
He said he knew the highway where the accident took place pretty well: long road trips are part and parcel of youth and junior hockey life in the province.
"You're bonding on that bus and that's when you spend the most time together," said Damon Severson, a defenseman with the NHL's New Jersey Devils who grew up in the area.
Established in 1970, the Broncos are in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL), which is for players aged 16 to 20.
"The league is what we used to call in the old days, Tier 2 junior. It's high-level hockey," said David Gregory, an NHL scout. "These are kids committed to the game, and Humboldt was in their playoffs and are all on the way to what they hope is a championship."
The coach of the NHL's Washington Capitals, Barry Trotz, who played for Regina in the SJHL and then in the Western Hockey League, said every NHL player could relate to the Broncos on the bus.
"Those young men were chasing a dream," Trotz said. "Because a lot of our players in this league were chasing that same dream and being on the same buses on the way." (Additional reporting by Gene Cherry; writing by Daniel Wallis, editing by G Crosse and Sandra Maler)