The Columbus Cottonmouths team bus careened off a rain-slicked on ramp in central Illinois on Thursday afternoon, occupied by 23 players and hockey support staff. All on the bus suffered minor injuries, with a couple suffering slightly more serious injuries requiring an overnight stay in an area hospital.
The accident occurred at the intersection of Interstates 155 and 74 in Morton, Ill., less than 10 miles outside Peoria, where the Rivermen were set to host to the Cottonmouths on Friday and Saturday.
All but two on the bus were treated and released from OSF St. Francis Hospital in Peoria, according to Cottonmouths head coach Jerome Bechard. Goaltender Brandon Jaeger and bus driver Wayne Allen were kept overnight for further evaluation and treatment, according to Bechard.
“We just got back to the hotel. We’re resting, banged up,” Bechard said by phone from the hotel Thursday evening.
Recalling the accident, Bechard said there was nothing out of the ordinary about the 14-hour trek from Columbus that started at midnight Wednesday night.
“It was raining, and everyone was up and about,” Bechard said. “We were right there out of Peoria, just coming off the highway ramp … I knew we were going over for sure.”
The bus fell onto its side and slid down an embankment, according to Bechard, hitting the ditch and jarring the occupants of the bus.
Once the bus came to a stop, first responders from the city of Morton soon arrived to help the Cottonmouths.
“The whole event was responded to unbelievably well by Peoria,” Bechard said. “The first responders, the state troopers, the sheriffs, the hospital were phenomenal.
“The Rivermen, (owner) Bart (Rogers) and (head coach) Jean-Guy (Trudel) asked what we needed, clothes, transportation. They’re bringing us a meal at the hotel right now because we don’t have any of our belongings, no money, no phones, nothing. They’ve been really great. As far as the support from Peoria, I can’t say enough.”
As of Thursday evening, no decision had been made as to the status of the weekend games at Carver Arena in Peoria.
“We haven’t talked about it,” Bechard said. “But just looking at some of the guys who are banged up, nothing life-threatening, but I don’t know if we’ll have enough to play. We’ll talk about it first thing (Friday) morning.”
The outpouring of support from not only the Cottonmouths and Rivermen staffs but the entire Southern Professional Hockey League and other pro hockey leagues was not lost on Bechard as he reflected on his team’s safety.
“This really puts everything in perspective,” Bechard said. “The biggest thing out of Bart’s mouth is that everyone was alive, and that’s the main thing. We’re so blessed that God took care of us.
“Everyone back home, thanks for the thoughts and prayers, keep praying for us, and hopefully everything will pan out and we’ll get back to hockey at some point.”