SAULT STE. MARIE — In 2014, Tony and Rose Aceti of Sault Ste. Marie were shocked to learn of the death of their son TJ Aceti, a former goalie who had played in the Memorial Cup and as a member of an NHL farm team.
After leaving hockey, TJ, who had become a professional electrician, passed away suddenly from natural causes.
Until recently, Tony had barely been able to utter his son’s name or able to touch any of his possessions.
“His stuff is still in boxes, his clothes are still here,” Tony told SooToday at the Aceti home on Douglas Street.
“A widow is a widow, and so forth, but there’s no name for a person who has lost a child,” Rose said.
However, the Humboldt Broncos tragedy seems to have brought about an amazing transformation for the couple, for Tony especially.
The horrific Apr. 6 bus crash, which claimed the lives of 10 young Humboldt Broncos players (as well as the team’s head coach, assistant coach, team bus driver, athletic therapist and two radio employees) and injured 13 others, has inspired Tony to erect a memorial tribute to the Broncos on the front steps of his home.
Tony has painted two of TJ’s sticks, wrote Humboldt Broncos on them and fixed them to the front step railing, along with lights.
He plans to add more lights to the display so that it is illuminated at night.
“Obviously, TJ’s always in our hearts, but we wanted to do something for the parents of the 16 victims to show them ‘we know how you feel,’” Rose said.
“You have to lose a child to understand. I cried every day (after the Humboldt tragedy),” Rose said, inspiring Tony to erect the memorial at the couple’s home.
“When you play Triple A hockey and junior hockey, you’re always on a bus. You really don’t think something like that is going to happen. I really feel sorry for those people who lost their kids, and the coaching staff…how are you going to cope with that?” Really. How do you cope with that?” Tony said.
“Nobody knows how you feel. You can’t sleep. You can’t eat. Some of those kids were so young,” Tony said, his voice trailing off with emotion.
“The hard times (for the family members of the victims) are just beginning, really. There are their birthdays, the anniversaries of their deaths, Christmas, Easter (without their loved ones),” Rose said.
A goaltender, TJ Aceti played Triple A hockey in the Sault before being called up by the Junior A Bramalea Blues hockey club.
In 1999, he was selected by the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, playing for them for two seasons, then traded to the Erie Otters.
With the Otters, TJ went all the way to the Memorial Cup in 2002, but the team lost to the WHL’s Kootenay Ice.
From there, TJ played for a season with the Long Beach Ice Dogs in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), then the Gwinnett Gladiators, a farm team for the NHL’s now defunct Atlanta Thrashers.
While with the Gladiators, TJ’s knee was injured, and he left hockey to become a professional electrician.
After working in Windsor, TJ left to work at a hydro electric generation station at Smoky Falls, Ontario.
On the morning of Mar. 14, 2014, TJ was found dead in his room.
A healthy man with no outstanding medical issues, doctors said his heart had stopped.
He was 31 years old.
“TJ wanted to come back to the Sault and open up a goalie school, a hockey school for handicapped children. That’s what it was all about for him, giving them a chance,” Rose said.
Tony said TJ was not only his son, but also his best friend, the two often hunting and fishing together.
Tony, a retired auto mechanic, and Rose, a retired retail worker and hairstylist, have a daughter, and are now grandparents and great-grandparents.
TJ was a single man, with no children.
“The other day, a young woman pulled up here, she knew my son. She looked at this (memorial display) and she was just shaking,” Tony said.
“This is the least we could do, to honour the players and their families, because we know where they’re coming from…this is our way of reaching out to them.”