Tragedy, trauma in a small town

The weekend following a double homicide, Blairmore hosts a WHL tournament. What to expect?

Terry Blanchette and his daughter Hailey Blanchette-Dunbar.

Terry Blanchette and his daughter Hailey Blanchette-Dunbar.

I got into my truck, pulled out of the Townsman parking lot just before 4:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon and made my way east.

I knew where I was heading but I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Just two days earlier, the small mountain town of Blairmore rocked by the tragic reality of a double-murder.

Two-year-old Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette and her 27-year-old father Terry Blanchette — gone.

It’s the type of reality no community should ever be challenged with.

So, what should have been a normal “day at the office” for me as the Kootenay Ice met the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the Crowsnest Pass for Western Hockey League pre-season play, was going to be anything but that.

This much I knew.

In 2013, in the midst of my first full-time job in journalism, living in Kindersley, Sask., I was faced with interviewing the local high-school football team after an 18-year-old teammate, classmate and friend, was suddenly lost to a head-on collision 80 kilometres from home.

The loss of that young man, to a tragic and completely uncontrollable event rocked the core of a tight-knit community of 4,700.

But that was a completely different kind of loss.

To intentionally snuff an innocent and pure spark hits like nothing else can.

I spent as much of my 170-km drive along the Crowsnest Highway trying to keep the story from my mind.

This was my second time visiting the Crowsnest Pass for the WHL Thunder Challenge — an annual event in its seventh year raising for funds for the local minor hockey program in the area.

The arena was bathed in the glow of the September sun, perched high on the hill overlooking the valley. It’s the sort of landscape artists dream of recreating on canvas. I walked through the doors and the warmth was gone, though not because of the refrigerated ice maintained inside.

Brave faces welcomed me, each with a smile, as I gave my donation for the local minor hockey program.

Blairmore, a town of 2,000, is like any other rural community. It’s as much a tight-knit, extended family as it is a small mountain settlement. When tragedy strikes, it strikes everyone.

A moment of silence before puck drop.

I make my way around the arena throughout the game, doing my regular thing — taking photos, questioning the officiating, and reminding myself how smart I was to wear wool socks.

I overhear people in the building — people I can only assume are locals.

“This is happening in our community. They’re taking our children.”

It’s haunting to hear.

People were only just getting an opportunity to begin truly processing the tragedies.

Shortly after Monday’s Amber Alert hit desks in newsrooms across Canada, a national media circus touched down in the Crowsnest Pass — a municipality comprising the towns of Blairmore and Coleman, and villages of Bellevue and Frank.

The circus didn’t leave town until after 22-year-old Derek Saretzky had been charged Wednesday.

Thursday was the first real respite from the full-on emotional rollercoaster.

The Ice lost 3-2 to the Hurricanes, a mere footnote in my day.

I trekked back to the Crowsnest on Saturday for the finale of the Thunder Challenge.

I walked through the doors, and once again smiles greeted me.

The rink was packed — not a seat to be found — much different from the quiet, calm Thursday crowd.

I spoke with a local reporter who told me how his small, community newspaper broke the story over Facebook.

We didn’t know what had happened, just that something bad had happened, he told me.

Those words will never come close to capturing just how bad the events were as they unfolded over the next 48 hours.

But what happened over 48 hours from Thursday, inspired.

Earlier in the night, a local RCMP officer stepped on to the ice to make the 50/50 draw. There was a sizeable prize on the line for those with tickets in hand.

The officer spoke and the crowd responded with a warm, supportive applause and cheer, almost a “thank you” for his detachment’s service throughout a week most only read about in big-city news.

The local reporter told me the hockey provided a needed relief for the community.

The Hitmen doubled up the Ice 4-2.

But what resonated most with me was the strength shown by a community rocked with unimaginable tragedy.

I got into my truck, pulled out of the arena parking lot in the Crowsnest Pass just before 10 p.m. Saturday night and made my way west.

I knew where I was heading.

What I took with me was a reminder of how short life can be, how much it should be cherished.

The people of Crowsnest Pass taught me about resolve.

What could have been a normal “day at the office” for me was anything but.

Whether it’s your son, daughter, mother, father, friend or neighbour — take the time to tell them “I love you” today.