GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alta. -- A man convicted in a crash that killed four high school football players from northern Alberta was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison by a judge who said it was the toughest case he has ever faced.

Brenden Holubowich will also be forbidden to drive for three years once he is released.

Holubowich, 23, pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death and dangerous driving causing bodily harm. He had been facing 16 charges, including impaired driving causing death and failing to remain at the scene of an accident.

Holubowich's pickup truck collided with a car carrying five members of the Warriors football team from Grande Prairie Composite High School in October 2011.

Walter Borden-Wilkins and Tanner Hildebrand, both 15, and Matthew Deller and Vince Stover, both 16, were killed. Zach Judd, now 17, was pulled from the wreckage and spent several weeks in a coma.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice William Tilleman said he struggled in determining a sentence for Holubowich and will never forget the emotional victim impact statements submitted in court.

He noted one statement from Darren Davidson, Walter's step-father, who wrote that he holds no contempt for Holubowich and hopes that everyone will be able to forgive him.

But Tilleman said he also feels for Holubowich's family. He suggested the young man appeared genuine when he stood in court and apologized to the families.

"I could see in his face -- if not in his words -- his acceptance for what happened and not blaming anyone else," Tilleman said.

The judge's eyes filled with tears as he told court he sympathized with the dead teens' relatives, who had suggested that a three-year sentence would not be enough.

Tilleman said he at one point considered a longer period behind bars. But in the end, he said, the sentence jointly submitted by the Crown and defence was just and in keeping with similar cases.

Holubowich's mother, Teresa Bateman, read a statement outside court after the sentencing.

"We cannot imagine the loss or the grief that you've experienced and no matter how much we might pray, hope or wish that it isn't so, this tragedy can never be reversed and for this we are sorry," she said, her voice breaking.

Zach's mother, Desiree Judd, said the courts completely failed the families of the victims.

"I really had hopes last night that the judge would come back with something better, but I guess we were all let down."

Court heard Holubowich had been drinking with co-workers at a Grande Prairie bowling alley and was driving at speeds as high as 151 km/h on the way home to the nearby town of Wembley.

The football players had just left a party outside the city. But within minutes their car and three others pulled off the highway and into the driveway of a nearby business. One by one, they all quickly made U-turns on the highway to go in the other direction.

Their car, the last to make the U-turn, was struck as it straddled the centre line.

Holubowich never stopped to see if the boys were OK or to call 911. He ran on foot to his workplace, an oilfield transportation company, where RCMP found him an hour later.

Autopsy results show the boy driving the car, Matthew, had no alcohol or drugs in his system.

Judd testified Tuesday that he often thinks about suicide since the crash. He said the fact he was the only one to survive makes him angry and depressed.

He spent 11 days in a coma suffering from a severe brain injury and said he had to learn how to walk and talk again. He said he has permanently lost hearing in one ear and it affects his balance.

There was no evidence Holubowich was drunk when he got behind the wheel, but Tilleman spoke strongly about the dangers of drinking and driving.

"Drunk driving is sad, senseless, stupid and selfish," the judge said.

Defence lawyer Chris Millsap reiterated outside court that there was no evidence his client was drunk.

"I understand the concerns about drinking and driving, and I understand how alcohol was involved here to a degree," he said. "But this is not a case of drunk driving or impaired driving."