A NEW BE­GIN­NING IN HUMBOLDT

Less than six months af­ter bus crash, Bron­cos hit ice for reg­u­lar-sea­son opener

Calgary Herald - - SPORTS - KEVIN MITCHELL [email protected] twit­ter.com/ kmitchsp

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.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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.

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