Tom Cochrane’s “Big League” was written more than 30 years ago, but this week many Canadians have found it painfully resonant in the wake of the Humboldt Broncos’ bus crash.
The song is written from the perspective of a father whose son was a hockey player with big dreams cut short by a truck driving in the wrong lane. It flows with a certain Canadian spirit and howls at the loss of innocence.
Cochrane’s voice also carries a rousing tone on the recording that may seem too upbeat to some. But a number of listeners on social media credited its poignancy as they digested the news from Saskatchewan.
Fifteen people were killed at 14 injured when a semi-trailer collided with a bus carrying the youth hockey team last Friday.
The point isn’t lost on the “Life is a Highway” musician who said he finds it difficult to process the tragic headlines alongside tweets he’s receiving from Canadians playing the song. One YouTuber asked him for permission to use “Big League” in a tribute video to the players.
Other Canadian songs have been chosen for recent tributes, including the Tragically Hip’s “Wheat Kings,” which was featured in a montage of photos of the team on Saturday’s edition of Coach’s Corner on “Hockey Night in Canada.”
Country singer Paul Brant performed his 2001 song “Small Towns and Big Dreams” on CBC’s “Q” after recently rewriting the lyrics to incorporate a hockey theme at the request of Ron McLean, who planned to use it on a segment of Hometown Hockey.
Cochrane, who was raised in Lynn Lake, Man., and played hockey as a kid, said he understands hockey culture to its core.
“It’s a big family in this country,” said Cochrane, who now lives in Oakville, Ont.
“The game is a galvanizing force on that junior level. It defines the country more than even the big cities do.”
“Big League” in some ways is a reflection of that culture’s influence on Canada as a whole.
It was loosely based on a conversation between Cochrane and a man who approached him before a 1987 concert in Northern Ontario where he was performing with his band Red Rider.
The man asked if they would play their song “Boy Inside the Man,” saying that his son was a big fan and would’ve loved to hear it.
“He was talking in the past tense,” Cochrane recalled. “He said: he was a really good hockey player and had a promising career. It really stuck with me.”
Cochrane began writing about the experience months later, building a back story around the accident. He says it took him less than half an hour to form the basic structure of the song, which appeared on the 1988 album “Victory Day.”
“Big League” was a Canadian chart hit years before “Life is a Highway,” but the story behind the song quickly took on a life of its own.
Cochrane said he heard from people in Texas who related it to baseball, and Brits who found parallels to soccer.
A decade ago, he was asked to perform an acoustic version at the Vancouver Canucks opener as a tribute to Luc Bourdon, a defenceman who was killed in a motorcycle accident that summer. The tribute included a reel of footage from Bourdon’s life.
Not everyone feels “Big League” strikes the appropriate tone for the grieving process at this point.
Program directors at Corus Radio, one of the country’s largest radio broadcasters, got feedback from listeners who felt it was “too painful and tragic to hear right now,” said spokeswoman Rishma Govani.
“Listeners don’t feel ready to embrace the song as the anthem for the tragedy,” she added in an email.
But after the news of Humboldt, one fan suggested on Twitter that Cochrane consider re-working his lyrics for a tribute to the young players.
The songwriter says it’s too early to think beyond the accident, but he hopes people can find some healing in the music.
“It’s so sad and depressing, but out of that will come more strength,” he said.
“We all want to help out in some way. I think this outpouring of support is a good thing.”