A NEW BEGINNING IN HUMBOLDT
Less than six months after bus crash, Broncos hit ice for regular-season opener
On a chilly, overcast day in Humboldt, 160 nights after a bus and semi collided at a rural Saskatchewan intersection, two groups of boys pulled on their jerseys and played hockey.
Before this wee miracle of a game was played, Humboldt Broncos players passed through a dressing room door with a sign above the frame: a message from Darcy Haugan to his team.
“It’s a great day to be a Bronco, gentlemen,” reads the white letters against a green background.
From beneath that little message, the young men walked to the ice surface — a sold-out arena and a national television audience looking on — to play hockey.
Haugan, the Broncos’ head coach and general manager, used that phrase almost daily in this town before he died in the April 6 crash, one of 16 people to perish.
A little more than five months later, the Broncos — rebuilt as best they could — played their season opener, a 2-1 loss against the Nipawin Hawks. But the drive to the arena Wednesday was immersive: Ribbons, sticks, a parade of signs each bearing the image of somebody who died on that bus.
“I think it’s a miracle we’re to the point where we’re getting a team together here,” said Broncos president Jamie Brockman.
“To think the regular season is starting, from where we were five, six months ago ... it’s quite amazing we got to this point.”
The Broncos placed an equipment order within weeks of the crash. The man who distributed their equipment is Mark Doepker, the owner of a Humboldt sports store. Doepker is a seasonticket holder; he’s cheered for the Broncos since they formed in 1970.
Doepker went to Wednesday’s sold-out game, of course, because where else would you want to be?
“Sadness and sorrow ... there’s anxiety, there’s enthusiasm,” he said.
“I think you could just about cover the whole gamut of emotions. The tragedy, then getting the game underway, getting things off to a new start. There’s that excitement.”
The visiting Hawks, as one jokester said, were the Washington Generals of Wednesday’s game: the overlooked opponent. This night was about the Broncos and their remarkable entry into the 2018-19 Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League campaign.
But Nipawin is the best of all possible opponents, said Broncos forward Brayden Camrud, a crash survivor. The Hawks were Humboldt’s playoff foe when the collision happened near Nipawin, and that place became a hasty gathering point through one horrible night.
“They did a fantastic job of honouring us, wearing our helmets, having a small tribute for us (in the wake of the crash),” Camrud said. “They showed up at the hospital that night in Nipawin, too, and a lot of guys took it upon themselves to go out of the way to do small things. Playing specifically against Nipawin is going to be special.”
Two players on that April 6 bus suited up for the Broncos on Wednesday. In the small team locker-room, Camrud and Derek Patter dress across from each other, each occupying the centre stall on his side of the room, flanked by five on each side.
A new coach, Nathan Oystrick, walks between those two walls. New players populate the room.
“Nobody really knows what to expect, or exactly how to handle it. We’re just taking it day by day,” said Kyle Sargent, a veteran defenceman who was selected from the Yorkton Terriers in the SJHL’s dispersal draft aimed at helping the Broncos rebuild.
Sargent said the room has grown tight, and quickly. It’s a good feeling in there, he said. He played against the Broncos last season and he’ll never forget the night he heard about that crash.
“It puts into perspective how short life is, and how much of a privilege it is to be able to wake up every day to play junior hockey and do something that you love,” he said.
“It put everything into perspective: Play every game like it’s your last.”
The local museum has a Broncos display, with a rotating collection of everything that’s been sent their way from one end of the world to the other. Traffic was brisk there Wednesday.
There’s a signed letter from a Grade 1 class in Tuktoyaktuk; a hand-knitted flag from a 90-yearold woman in Swan River, Man., who suffered a massive stroke eight days after the Broncos crash. She made it known she wanted that flag to go to the “hockey boys.”
That’s what the Broncos and Hawks skated into Wednesday: unlimited goodwill and best wishes, from a country that wishes them nothing but the best.
“You’re looking forward to it in the sense of getting everything moving again,” Doepker said. “I guess you’re never going to forget it. You’re never going to get over it. It’s never going to be gone. But I guess it’s one of those things. It’ll be nice to see everything start moving again, if that makes sense.”
I think you could just about cover the whole gamut of emotions. The tragedy, then getting the game underway — getting things off to a new start.
Returning Humboldt Broncos players Brayden Camrud, left, and Derek Patter, who were both on the bus when the April 6 crash occurred, hug as they take part in the pre-game ceremony before playing the Nipawin Hawks in the team’s home opener Wednesday.