Five months ago, a tragic bus accident broke a team, shattered a town and transfixed the world.
Somehow, less than half a year later, the Humboldt Broncos are back on the ice, and the town that loves them packed their arena this week for the team’s first home game since the crash that killed 16 people.
What does one game mean to a town that lost everything? Will a hockey game ever be about hockey again in Humboldt? And what did it take for the team and the town to make sure there were sticks on the ice for the opening of the 2018-19 season.
Today on ‘The Big Story’ podcast, Ryan McKenna, Canadian Press correspondent for Saskatchewan, takes us back to Humboldt five months ago, and inside the arena on Wednesday night, to trace the path the town had to walk to get their beloved Broncos back into their skates, and to raise far, far too many jerseys into the rafters.
You can hear the full episode and subscribe to The Big Story podcast on iTunes or Google Play.
You can also hear it online at thebigstorypodcast.ca.
“Humboldt is really like any other small town in Saskatchewan. It’s not overly special in any particular way, other than the fact that it is the home of the Humboldt Broncos,” said McKenna.
He remembers April 6, 2018, when the Broncos’ team bus collided with a semi-truck.
“I got a text from a friend of mine in Toronto, asking me if I’d heard about the bus crash. I said, ‘No, but I’ll look into it’… not even 30 seconds later, our deputy western chief with the Canadian Press gave me a phone call and he told me to start driving.”
“That evening, I drove 7.5 hours… I got into Nipawin at about 1:45 a.m.”
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He said it took a lot of work from many different people for the team to return to the ice, five months later.
“The assistant general manager for the Broncos played a key part in scouting and recruiting,” McKenna explained. “Michael Clarke, he’s a 20-year-old player from Medicine Hat, Alberta. I got a chance to chat with him before the home opener. He got traded from his Alberta Junior Hockey League team to Humboldt. He had told me he just wanted his last year to be special. It’s guys like that who wanted to help Humboldt heal and help make an impact. He’s now one of the assistant captains on the Humboldt Broncos this season.”
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McKenna said people in that community are now ready to stop constantly talking about the crash. “They’re ready to move on, take a step forward… I think that’s sort of the sense that the home opener was able to give — a step forward.”
“I talked to a few people around the crowd. A lot of them were saying that game was a bit of a push forward. ‘Okay, we’ve got the first game underway. Let’s continue to try to heal, continue to try to grow from this.'”
The season opener
In the lead-up to the game, Kenna said there were memorial tributes outside the arena. “As you were driving in to the actual arena, each one of ithe 16 people who died had an individual picture on the grass… That was moving.”
“As you walked into the arena, to the right, there was a bench with wording inscribed. Beside that, there was a picture of last year’s team. Immediately right beside the door, there were 16 hockey sticks with green and yellow ribbons at the top of them.”
The actual tribute was held until after the game. “From talking to different people in the community, [that was] the right move to do.”
In the pre-game ceremony, the players were introduced, leaving the two surviving players who are on this year’s team to the end.
“As soon as they announced Derek Patter’s name… the crowd just erupted. They stood up. They started cheering,” said McKenna.
“It was a bit of an emotional moment, but it was also a bit of a triumphant moment, in some sense. They were proud that both Derek and Brayden Camrud — the other surviving player — came out onto the ice. They were proud that those guys had been resilient and are playing for their community and their city.”
There was also a moment of silence and the other surviving players who attended the game.
All of the surviving players were part of the ceremonial puck drop.
“Seeing the hugs between the survivors and Camrud and Patter… it was an emotional moment to see that,” said McKenna.