Bron­cos, town step through pain in re­turn to the ice

Calgary Herald - - NP - Nick Faris in Hum­boldt, Sask.

Kaleb Dahlgren would not grasp the mag­ni­tude of the tragedy for a few more days, not un­til af­ter the first NHL play­ers, coaches and TV per­son­al­i­ties had called or vis­ited, un­til the drugs wore off and the doc­tors and his fam­ily laid out the events of April 6 one more time in an­other attempt to ex­plain the in­com­pre­hen­si­ble.

The high­way crash that sent him to hos­pi­tal had in­jured his brain and frac­tured his skull, bro­ken two ver­te­brae in his neck and four more in his back, left him with road rash and a punc­ture wound and no mem­ory of how it all hap­pened. Heal­ing, in all its forms, would take time.

Still, for a mo­ment that Satur­day, April 7, he could at least think clearly enough to make a re­quest of his par­ents. Could they get to a com­puter and log into his email ac­count?

Dahlgren is a hockey player, a right-winger who re­cently turned 21, a Type 1 di­a­betic who runs an ad­vo­cacy pro­gram for chil­dren with the same dis­ease, an as­sis­tant cap­tain on his ju­nior team who prides him­self on his lead­er­ship, work ethic and sense of hu­mour.

Through­out the 2017-18 sea­son he’d kept in touch with coaches at sev­eral Cana­dian uni­ver­si­ties, gaug­ing their will­ing­ness to sign him.

Play­ing univer­sity hockey in Canada was a goal Dahlgren had har­boured since child­hood. He didn’t want to let the dream slip away. Write to those coaches, he asked his par­ents, to let them know he intended to make a full re­cov­ery.

Dahlgren’s par­ents, Mark and Anita, were shaken by the re­quest:

“They really took that hard and they were cry­ing when they were do­ing it, be­cause they had no clue whether or not I could play hockey,” he said. But his re­solve was for­ti­fied by the heartrend­ing news he’d have to be told again the fol­low­ing week: 16 peo­ple he counted as broth­ers and ex­tended fam­ily were gone, their lives cut short when they’d set out by bus to play a game they loved.

Only one course of ac­tion made sense.

“I made sure I said, ‘I want to play for those peo­ple,’” Dahlgren said.

In the wake of the bus crash that killed 16 mem­bers of the Hum­boldt Bron­cos and in­jured an­other 13 at a high­way in­ter­sec­tion in ru­ral Saskatchewan, as peo­ple around the town and the team be­gan their long search for com­fort and com­pre­hen­sion, the emo­tion that pow­ered many through the ter­ri­ble first days and weeks was love. It was the mo­ti­va­tion at the heart of count­less lit­tle acts, ges­tures that showed the vic­tims will re­main on the minds of those who cared about them for­ever.

The out­pour­ing con­tin­ued — in the form of do­na­tions and ben­e­fit con­certs, tat­toos and memo­rial tour­na­ments, sticks left out on the porch and mes­sages of sol­i­dar­ity from around the world — through the spring and into the hot Saskatchewan sum­mer, the pe­riod dur­ing which a ded­i­cated group of vol­un­teers en­gi­neered their own re­mark­able labour of love.

They brought the Hum­boldt Bron­cos back.

“When we go through dif­fi­cult times like we have — the most dif­fi­cult any­one can imag­ine — we need hockey to help us,” said Kevin Garinger, the pres­i­dent of the Bron­cos at the time of the crash.

In late Au­gust, the re­built Bron­cos em­barked on a new era in team his­tory by hold­ing a three-day train­ing camp at the El­gar Petersen Arena. Spec­ta­tors fi­nally re­turned to the rink last Fri­day, when the Bron­cos beat the Melfort Mus­tangs 7-4 in an SJHL pre-sea­son game. No seat will be left va­cant on Wed­nes­day night, when TSN broad­casts the team’s reg­u­lar-sea­son home opener against Ni­pawin na­tion­wide.

The drop of the puck against Ni­pawin will con­firm some­thing else Garinger said on the day of the vigil: that the crash would not her­ald the end of the fran­chise.

In Hum­boldt, the Bron­cos are in­dis­pens­able — the en­tity that in­spires lo­cals to leave their homes on bit­ing win­ter nights. Since 1970, when the fran­chise was founded, they have been one of Canada’s win­ningest Ju­nior A teams. Off the ice, their play­ers are linch­pins of the com­mu­nity. They shovel drive­ways, read to school­child­ren, carry boxes when a busi­ness moves lo­ca­tions. They make Hum­boldt go.

“In many ways,” said Garinger, “they are Hum­boldt.”

Wed­nes­day’s game is the cul­mi­na­tion of the push to re­store the team to a rec­og­niz­able ver­sion of its old self. It is a feat with no par­al­lel in the his­tory of Cana­dian sport, one ac­com­plished in mem­ory of the 16 vic­tims whose names, per­son­al­i­ties and as­pi­ra­tions they will never for­get.

“When we’re all hurt­ing so much be­cause those peo­ple are no longer with us, lean­ing on oth­ers to try and fill the huge shoes that are left is how we’re go­ing to be able to heal,” Garinger said. “We’re go­ing to be able to cheer again for our Hum­boldt Bron­cos.”

On one of the first days af­ter April 6, Randy MacLean, the Bron­cos’ vice-pres­i­dent at the time, was sit­ting in a room with the other mem­bers of the team’s board of di­rec­tors, as they pro­cessed how they’d move for­ward. One per­son broke a mo­men­tary si­lence with a lament: “This is not what we signed on for.”

There was a brief pause be­fore the rest of the room spoke up in re­sponse, al­most in uni­son: “This is ex­actly what we signed on for.”

“This is why we got in­volved in the be­gin­ning: to support a great or­ga­ni­za­tion and support a great com­mu­nity,” MacLean said in an in­ter­view dur­ing the off-sea­son. “Why do we con­tinue to do it? It’s about sup­port­ing peo­ple in their time of need. It’s about griev­ing with them and cry­ing with them and lift­ing them up.

“It’s about, at dif­fer­ent times, be­ing that light in the dark­ness,” he con­tin­ued. “It’s about hav­ing the hon­our of re­build­ing and sup­port­ing the re­build of an amaz­ing fran­chise.”

In the fall of 2012, 7,500 kilo­me­tres away from Hum­boldt, the former NHL goalie Cur­tis San­ford joined a sim­i­lar re­build ef­fort in Yaroslavl, Rus­sia. San­ford had re­cently signed with the lo­cal Kon­ti­nen­tal Hockey League fran­chise, Loko­mo­tiv, less than a year af­ter that team’s en­tire main ros­ter died in a plane crash on take­off en route to a game in Be­larus.

In all, 44 of the 45 peo­ple on the doomed char­ter flight were killed. San­ford was one of the play­ers re­cruited to lead the way in a dif­fi­cult time, as Loko­mo­tiv hired a new coach, re­built its ros­ter and com­mit­ted to re­turn­ing to the KHL.

The play­ers car­ried with them a deep sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity: they wanted to make the res­i­dents of Yaroslavl proud. Ev­ery time San­ford slipped on his jersey be­fore each game was a small salute to the men on the plane — and an ex­pres­sion of hope that his hon­est ef­fort on the ice could in some way help peo­ple feel a bit bet­ter.

Around the KHL, each away crowd was in­tent on pay­ing trib­ute to the team: they cheered for the Loko­mo­tiv play­ers as bois­ter­ously as they did their own. At home, Loko­mo­tiv fans be­gan to seek San­ford out for quick con­ver­sa­tions. When peo­ple saw him in pub­lic, they would ap­proach him, shake his hand, ask for a hug and of­fer their pro­found thanks.

“If I had a nickel for ev­ery time I was stopped and hugged just go­ing to the gro­cery store in Yaroslavl, I’d be a pretty rich man,” San­ford said.

Just as San­ford stood tall in goal for Loko­mo­tiv and its fans, the pre­vail­ing re­sponse in house­holds across Canada to the Bron­cos’ bus crash was that of peo­ple ral­ly­ing to do what they could. A Go­FundMe cam­paign raised more than $15 mil­lion for the af­fected fam­i­lies. Tom Cochrane tweaked the lyrics to Big League, his 1988 song about a teenage hockey star killed by a truck driv­ing in the wrong lane, and re­leased it as a sin­gle to col­lect more money for the cause.

“Maybe you feel like you want to of­fer the most help when you feel the most help­less,” said An­drew Fer­ence, the NHL’s di­rec­tor of so­cial im­pact, growth and fan de- vel­op­ment, who hosted 10 of the play­ers who sur­vived at the league’s awards cer­e­mony in Las Ve­gas in June.

The rea­sons Cana­di­ans were gripped by the Bron­cos’ plight are var­ied, but Win­nipeg Jets ra­dio broad­caster Brian Munz — whose tweet in­spired the #stick­son­the­p­orch ges­ture that swept the na­tion — thinks one el­e­ment is that long bus trips are a universal ex­pe­ri­ence, and any­one who has boarded one to go a game could have been caught in a crash.

Speak­ing by phone dur­ing the off-sea­son, be­fore he co­hosted a memo­rial golf tour­na­ment that raised nearly $100,000 for the Bron­cos, Munz was al­ready en­vi­sion­ing how the team would hon­our the peo­ple they lost.

“I think of the next group of play­ers that are go­ing to put on that jersey. They’re car­ry­ing the legacy of that 2017-18 Hum­boldt Bronco team,” Munz said. “It’s go­ing to be an hon­our for those kids. When they step on the ice in Septem­ber, they’re car­ry­ing on the tra­di­tion of that fran­chise.”

On Aug. 23, one day be­fore the re­built Bron­cos gath­ered in Hum­boldt for the start of train­ing camp, Toby and Ber­na­dine Boulet were in town to ac­cept a hu­man­i­tar­ian award from the An­gel’s Legacy Project on be­half of their son, Lo­gan. The Bron­cos’ as­sis­tant cap­tain was kept alive long enough af­ter the crash for his or­gans to be do­nated to six peo­ple in need, a de­ci­sion that in­spired nearly 95,000 Cana­di­ans to reg­is­ter as donors them­selves. It is an ex­tra­or­di­nary legacy to leave be­hind, Toby said.

Af­ter the cer­e­mony, the at­ten­dees went out­side to watch four Cana­dian Snow­bird planes soar in di­a­mond for­ma­tion through the clear sum­mer sky. The fleet ap­peared and then van­ished from view in a mat­ter of sec­onds, but the pi­lots, two per air­craft, cir­cled back to­ward the town at great speed. When they reached the open space over Hum­boldt, the planes di­verged from their straight line in pairs to per­form an ac­ro­batic loop. The smoke that tailed them cre­ated the shape of a heart.

In­side the planes, each pi­lot car­ried a pa­per list of the names of the 16 who died in the crash, as well as those of the sur­vivors and fam­ily mem­bers. The 16 are, in al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der, Tyler Bieber, Lo­gan Boulet, Dayna Brons, Mark Cross, Glen Do­erk­sen, Darcy Hau­gan, Adam Herold, Brody Hinz, Lo­gan Hunter, Jaxon Joseph, Ja­cob Le­icht, Con­ner Lukan, Lo­gan Schatz, Evan Thomas, Parker Tobin and Stephen Wack.

The next af­ter­noon, a few dozen fans sat in the up­per rows of the arena as 19 play­ers in black jer­seys, the first of four sets of prospec­tive Bron­cos au­di­tion­ing to make the fi­nal ros­ter, emerged from a dress­ing room for the first on-ice ses­sion of train­ing camp.

Two of the 79 play­ers in­vited to camp were Cam­rud and Pat­ter, the only pas­sen­gers on the bus who re­turned to the ros­ter. Pat­ter is en­ter­ing his third sea­son in the SJHL, his sec­ond with the Bron­cos. Cam­rud, now a three-year vet­eran him­self, has known no other ju­nior team aside from Hum­boldt. This sea­son, he will sit in­side the dress­ing room at the stall pre­vi­ously oc­cu­pied by Schatz, the Bron­cos’ cap­tain at the time he passed away.

Cam­rud came back to the Bron­cos to be a leader — a role model to his new team­mates, a fa­mil­iar face for the fans who know his name and his story, a torch­bearer for a group of peo­ple who are never far from his mind. Ev­ery ac­tion he has taken since April 6, he said, has been for them.

“It’s for the fam­i­lies, it’s for all the boys who passed, it’s for the boys who are still here,” Cam­rud said. “I just want to make sure I’m do­ing ev­ery­thing I can to make them proud.”

As the SJHL sea­son be­gins, the 11 other young play­ers who sur­vived the crash are spread across the coun­try, mov­ing for­ward as best they can with the next phase of their lives. Ja­cob Wasser­mann, the goalie from Hum­boldt who was par­a­lyzed from the waist down, has stayed on with the Bron­cos as a scout. Ryan Straschnitzki, par­a­lyzed from the chest down, is un­der­go­ing re­hab in Cal­gary and find­ing his bear­ings in sledge hockey. Gray­sen Cameron is an as­sis­tant coach with the Red Deer Op­ti­mist Chiefs. Xavier LaBelle plans to help out a cou­ple of his former teams this sea­son. Tyler Smith hopes to re­turn to the ice in the near fu­ture. Layne Mat­e­chuk is still in hos­pi­tal in Saska­toon. Mor­gan Gobeil con­tin­ues to re­cover from his in­juries.

Four Bron­cos are open­ing the new sea­son with teams at the univer­sity level. Nick Shum­lan­ski, the first player re­leased from hos­pi­tal, headed out east to play for the Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land Pan­thers, while Bryce Fiske and Matthieu Gomer­cic joined the Univer­sity of On­tario In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy Ridge­backs. One of their op­po­nents will be the York Lions, who an­nounced this spring that they had signed Kaleb Dahlgren.

Through­out the fi­nal sea­son he spent in ju­nior, Dahlgren kept York at the top of the list of teams he’d hoped would ten­der him an of­fer. Team­mate Mark Cross had played there and en­joyed ev­ery mo­ment, and Toronto seemed as good a place as any to ful­fil his de­sire to move away from Saskatchewan for school. He’ll study com­merce, with the op­tion to trans­fer into ed­u­ca­tion af­ter his first year. Later this month, he’ll travel back to Saskatchewan with the Lions for a se­ries of ex­hi­bi­tion games, in­clud­ing a matchup with the Cal­gary Di­nos in Hum­boldt on Sept. 21. The trip is be­ing billed as the Mark Cross Hum­boldtStrong Re­mem­brance Tour.

Dahlgren will not be in uni­form for those games, for the lin­ger­ing in­jury to his brain hasn’t healed to the point where he can re­turn to com­pe­ti­tion. He hopes to be cleared by Jan­uary, though he may be side­lined un­til the fall of 2019.

For now, Dahlgren said, he is try­ing to stay pos­i­tive and fo­cus on as­pects of his life he can con­trol: his ac­tions, his at­ti­tude and his char­ac­ter, that favourite trait of Hau­gan’s. He thinks about the fam­ily he lost on the bus ev­ery sin­gle day. He re­mem­bers prac­tices and work­outs, hang­outs and the ca­ma­raderie that com­pelled 15 play­ers to con­gre­gate at his bil­let par­ents’ home ev­ery Mon­day night last sea­son to watch The Bach­e­lor, a few days be­fore they’d head to Pat­ter and Cameron’s place for an episode of Riverdale. Oc­ca­sion­ally he’ll thumb through the Instagram pro­files of team­mates who died.

It was an hon­our to wear the Bron­cos crest along­side them, he said, and it is for them that he clings to a reg­u­lar ex­pres­sion of love. He’ll of­ten pin a Bron­cos rib­bon to his chest. His right wrist bears an­other re­minder of their bond: a beaded green bracelet with a yel­low gem­stone and a sil­ver wing.

“They’ll be with me for­ever,” he said.



The Bron­cos hit the ice with head coach Nathan Oys­trick in late Au­gust dur­ing the first day of train­ing camp at El­gar Petersen Arena in Hum­boldt, Sask. The team’s Wed­nes­day-night home opener will be broad­cast na­tion­wide by TSN.

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