IN HOCKEY, FINDING THE POWER TO HEAL
Broncos, town step through pain in return to the ice
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.
IT’S ABOUT SUPPORTING PEOPLE IN THEIR TIME OF NEED.
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.