BATHURST, N.B. – A New Brunswick mayor whose city was devastated by a van crash that killed seven high school basketball players says he hopes a movie based on the tragedy will help his community heal, despite outcry from some mothers who lost their sons in the accident.
Stephen Brunet said the made-for-TV movie, set to air Sunday on CBC Television, is a “feel-good story” that focuses on the success of the Bathurst High School boys’ basketball team after the January 2008 crash that killed most of its players and the coach’s wife.
“It’s not about the tragedy. It’s about how people picked up the pieces after the tragedy and carried on,” said Brunet.
“Some of the mothers are still grieving, which is a natural thing to be doing … but it’s not about their children. It’s about the team that carried on after and went forward, moved on and made everybody proud in Bathurst.”
The movie, produced by Fredericton-based Dream Street Pictures and CBC Television, recounts the true story of how the Bathurst Phantoms captured a provincial basketball title just 13 months after the horrific accident.
The film’s producers have billed “The Phantoms” as “an inspiring real-life story of triumph in a small town.”
But Isabelle Hains and Ana Acevedo, whose sons died in the crash, have repeatedly slammed the producers as opportunists who are cashing in on the lives of their children and doing so too soon after their deaths.
“This film does not honour our sons’ memory,” Acevedo said in a statement.
“The reality is there is no story without the tragedy and the events leading up to it.”
Daniel Hains and Javier Acevedo, both 17, were on their way home on Jan. 12, 2008, following a game in Moncton, N.B., when their school van collided with a transport truck on an icy highway.
Five of their teammates — Nathan Cleland, Justin Cormier, Codey Branch, Nick Quinn and Nicholas Kelly — were also killed, along with the wife of the team’s coach, Elizabeth Lord.
The coach, who was driving the van, his daughter and two other team members survived.
The premise of “The Phantoms” is reminiscent of “We Are Marshall,” a 2006 Hollywood release starring Matthew McConaughey as Jack Lengyel, the real-life coach who helped Marshall University heal after an airplane crash in 1970 that killed most of its football team.
Lengyel visited Bathurst months after the van crash to speak with grieving students, teachers and parents.
Rick LeGuerrier, a producer of “The Phantoms,” said while the movie makes reference to the van crash, the accident itself isn’t depicted.
He said he wouldn’t have moved forward with the two-year project, which was filmed in Bathurst, if the community of about 13,000 hadn’t been receptive.
“We respect the opinions of those who’ve spoken out (against the movie),” he said in an interview. “We decided that we would be very, very sensitive along the way to any of the opinions that were expressed.”
Ultimately, LeGuerrier said he and co-producer Tim Hogan — a Bathurst native — are proud of the movie.
“What this team was able to accomplish gave people hope. … That’s the story we wanted to tell.”
Hains and Acevedo fought for months to block production of “The Phantoms,” along with Marcella Kelly, the mother of Nicholas Kelly.
The mothers, who run a blog dedicated to their children, have long pressed for provincial and national changes in the rules governing student travel, including the kinds of vehicles and tires used on vans.
A spokeswoman said none of the women was available for an interview.
The mothers complained about the use of CBC funding for the film and asked the province’s auditor general to investigate the granting of a $250,000 film tax credit to the filmmakers. But the CBC ombudsman as well as the provincial and federal auditors general refused to intervene.
The women also filed a complaint with the provincial ombudsman in an effort to reverse a decision by school officials to allow some filming at Bathurst High School. Acting provincial ombudsman Francois Levert asked the women last month to direct their complaint to the District Education Council in Bathurst.
Brunet, who was mayor at the time of the crash, said most people in the community are supportive of the film. A number of residents signed on to be background actors and are eager to see themselves on the small screen, he added.
He said he’s hopeful the story told in the film is one of triumph overcoming tragedy.
“It was a very, very difficult time,” Brunet said of the crash. “It affected everybody and we pulled together as nothing ever before and we tried to back the parents and help the parents through their difficult time.
“We know that they’ll never get over what happened.”
— By Melanie Patten in Halifax