Logan Hunter loved hats.
He had a Blackhawks hat. He had a Red Wings hat. He had a Blue Jays hat. But his favorite of all was a Pirates hat.
“He always, always would choose the Pirates hat,” said Shauna Nordstrom, Hunter’s mom. “I look back on pictures and there’s always that Pirates hat. He wasn’t a Pirates fan — it wasn’t that. He just gravitated to it.”
Hawks rookie defenseman Ian Mitchell, growing up in the Edmonton suburb of St. Albert, Alberta, never had quite the same hat obsession.
But now, when he reaches over every morning to grab his own Pirates hat — customized with Hunter’s initials and number — he’s reminded that his best friend since sixth grade is still with him.
“I see his initials on the side and think of him and how proud he would be that I’m getting to live my dream right now,” Mitchell said. “For sure, he’s still watching. He’s with me still.”
Tuesday will mark three years since the Humboldt Broncos bus crash on April 6, 2018.
The junior hockey team — based in the small central Saskatchewan town of Humboldt — was en route to a road game when a semi-trailer truck going 60 mph blew a stop sign at a rural highway intersection and struck the bus, killing 16 people and injuring another 13.
On that evening, Mitchell was a freshman at the University of Denver, playing video games in his dorm room when a friend called.
“I just said, ‘I’ll call him back after this game,’ ” he said. “And then I started going through Twitter and saw there was a bus crash. At first, you don’t think anything of it. [You assume] it’s not going to be anything bad. Then I get on the phone with my buddy Dylan, and he’s like, ‘Logan’s not responding.’ “
Mitchell was close friends with three Broncos players. All three had died.
One was Conner Lukan, Mitchell’s teammate from 2014 to 2017 with the Spruce Grove Saints, another junior team in the Edmonton suburbs. Lukan, the Broncos’ second-leading scorer, was a “really funny guy and someone you always wanted to be around,” Mitchell said.
One was Parker Tobin, the goalie on Mitchell’s spring hockey teams and one of two regular Broncos starters. He was “one of the smartest guys I’ve ever known,” Mitchell said. “Kind of a genius.”
And one was Hunter.
Mitchell and Hunter never played organized hockey together growing up, yet were tight friends off the ice.
Their shared competitiveness and love for sports manifested in other ways: They played golf, pingpong and knee hockey. They spent time at the lake. They watched NHL games on TV. They hung out at friend’s houses.
“They were a little bit opposites, I have to say,” Nordstrom said. “Ian is organized, always on time or early. Logan was disorganized, always running a little bit late. But I always enjoyed when Logan said he was going to hang out with Ian. He was a really good influence on Logan.”
Recalled Mitchell: “He was always the life of the party. He always had a smile on his face.”
Mitchell returned home immediately after the accident to speak at Hunter’s funeral. The Canadian hockey communities had rallied around the tragedy, eventually raising $15 million through a GoFundMe campaign for survivors and families of the deceased.
“It was good to see everyone and be around, but under the circumstances, it was awful,” Mitchell said. “We talked about like, ‘How many times were you on the bus?’ And nothing bad ever happens. And then what a freak accident.
“That was the biggest impact, psychologically, thinking it could’ve been me. Instead it’s one of your best friends. I don’t know what’s worse.”
That summer, Mitchell visited home again and found one of his and Hunter’s friends wearing a Pirates hat. It quickly became a larger tribute, with the entire group of friends ordering their own hats despite no actual interest in the Pirates baseball team.
Today, Mitchell still wears a Pirates hat with Hunter’s initials and number nearly every day. He’s on his second one now, having worn out the first.
Even based in Chicago — typically hostile territory for the Pirates — he wears the hat on Zoom calls with reporters, team plane rides and elsewhere.
“[It’s] just a cool way to remember him,” Mitchell said.
Said Nordstrom: “Just seeing a little piece of Logan with him . . . it really does put a true smile on my face.”
Nordstrom and Mitchell remain close, texting after every game Mitchell plays. They also meet up every summer to share memories of innocent times.
“We’ve had some tears, but we’ve definitely had some good laughs together, because Logan left us so many great, funny stories,” Nordstrom said.
After playing in 32 of the Hawks’ first 34 games, Mitchell will be out of the lineup Saturday for a fifth straight game — the first significant speed bump he has encountered in his pro career. But his future with the team remains bright, especially considering he’s just a few months removed from being the franchise’s far-and-away No. 1 prospect.
When he does re-enter the lineup, his best friend’s spirit will be with him, as usual.
“We watch, and I can hear Logan saying, ‘Mom, Ian is on a defensive pairing now with Duncan Keith,’ ” Nordstrom said, laughing. “I can hear him going, ‘Mom, he just passed the puck to Patrick Kane.’ ”