Montreal (AFP) - Hockey-mad Canada was in mourning on Saturday after a bus carrying a junior ice hockey team collided with a semi-trailer truck in Saskatchewan province, killing 14 people.
In a country where love of the sport is almost a religion, the crash sparked an outpouring of grief among players and fans on social media, while national political leaders expressed their sympathies.
"We can now confirm 14 people have died as a result of this collision," the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said in a statement, which did not say how many of the victims were players or coaches of the Humboldt Broncos team.
Of the total 28 people on the team bus, including the driver, 14 were taken to hospital with injuries.
"Three of these people have injuries that are critical in nature," the RCMP said.
They gave no information about the status of the truck driver.
The crash took place at around 5:00 pm (2300 GMT) Friday on Highway 35 about 28 kilometers (18 miles) north of the town of Tisdale, a trading center in an overwhelmingly agricultural region of the western province.
The team was heading north for a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks.
Police gave no indication of the cause, but early Saturday special police investigators were still at the scene, which is roughly 150 kilometers east of Prince Albert City.
The Saskatchewan league is a feeder system for higher levels of hockey, with many graduating to play at US and Canadian colleges and major junior league level, while some go on to the National Hockey League.
Similar leagues operate throughout the country, their buses a regular feature of the vast country's highways.
"It is a significant accident; we had a tractor trailer and a bus collide," RCMP Inspector Ted Monro told a press conference, declining to give details about the victims.
The STARS Air Ambulance service said two of its helicopters flew to the scene.
There were a "high volume of incoming trauma cases" at Royal University Hospital and St. Paul's Hospital, the Saskatchewan Health Authority said on Twitter.
Both hospitals are located in Saskatoon city, about 250 kilometers from the crash site.
Victims' families were directed to Nipawin Apostolic Church for information and support.
- 'Devastated' -
The Saskatoon Star Phoenix newspaper published on its website a photo of one player who survived, Derek Patter, lying side by side with two other injured players on hospital beds, clasping each others' hands in support. One of the young men appeared to be wearing a neck brace.
"I cannot imagine what these parents are going through, and my heart goes out to everyone affected by this terrible tragedy, in the Humboldt community and beyond," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted.
"Our Broncos family is in shock as we try to come to grips with our incredible loss," Broncos team president Kevin Garinger said in a statement.
The team comprises 24 players, all from Canada, with the youngest aged 16 and the oldest 21.
"It's a horrible accident, my God," Darren Opp, president of the Nipawin Hawks hockey team, told the Globe and Mail. "It's very, very bad.
"There's uncles and moms and dads waiting to hear whether their sons and nephews are OK."
In a statement, Hockey Canada said it was "devastated" by the news.
- 'My heart is in Humboldt' -
"Our hockey community is a tight-knit family. We will come together in support of each other in the days ahead, as we mourn those lives lost, remember the injured and support those whose lives are forever changed by this tragedy," it added.
Fans and players alike shared messages of condolences using the hashtag #PrayforHumboldt.
"My entire career I've looked forward to every bus trip," tweeted Anaheim Ducks National Hockey League defenseman Steven Oleksy.
"It's a place where players can forget what happens on the ice. 2night my heart is in Humboldt."
An online fundraising page set up by a woman listed on social media as a Humboldt resident raised nearly CAN$40,000 (US$31,000) in a matter of hours.
The collision brought back memories of a single vehicle bus crash in December 1986, also in Saskatchewan, that killed four members of the Western Hockey League Swift Current Broncos.
The Swift Current Broncos also shared their condolences.
"Humboldt Broncos weighing heavy in our hearts and minds tonight," the team said on Twitter.