HUMBOLDT, Sask. — After the last funeral, Matteo Carboni didn’t go back.
Ten months passed before the minister from Humboldt, Sask., realized he hadn’t set foot again inside the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team.
“There could be some kind of subconscious reasons why,” he says.
Thousands gathered at the arena last April to mourn after the team’s bus and a semi-truck collided while the Broncos were on the way to a playoff game. Sixteen people were killed and another 13 were injured.
Mourners came with flowers and hockey sticks and candles. And they came for funerals.
Carboni attended some of the services and helped organize a vigil. He’s doing so again Saturday for a memorial marking the one-year anniversary of the crash.
“I used to go there all the time,” says Carboni, seated in the stained-glass sanctuary of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church.
Massive farming equipment and a pork plant greet visitors heading into the quiet prairie city, home to about 6,000 people. Along Main Street, reminders of the tragedy are everywhere.
“Prayers for Humboldt” and “Humboldt Strong” stickers pepper storefronts and rear windows of vehicles. Fire hydrants, with the team’s signature green-and-yellow stripes, are painted to look like Broncos players.
At the art gallery, there’s a cycling exhibit of hundreds of crafts and gifts sent to the city after the crash.
The Spotlight sportswear store sells T-shirts, hoodies and hats emblazoned with “We are Humboldt Strong.”
“Everyone still wants a piece of the Broncos, something to wear in honour, to show some pride,” says the store’s founder, Mike Yager. “Last week we shipped a package to Argentina.”
The Broncos crash made news around the world. People from 80 countries donated $15 million to support those on the bus and their families.
No other place felt the impact more than Humboldt, where the Broncos are part of the community’s identity.
Brenda Kraft pours coffee at Wong’s Restaurant on a recent afternoon. She says many of her friends and customers had loved ones on the Broncos bus that day.
“One lady’s daughter is finally realizing her brother’s gone. She’s really taking it hard,” she says.
Lou Pascal sits at a table of men talking over coffee. He’s retired and doesn’t go to games anymore, but years ago used to ride the team’s bus and do colour commentary at games.
“The emotions were pretty good there,” he says, his voice shaking. “It made you feel like you were part of something that was exceptional.”
Pascal can’t explain why he hasn’t visited the crash site yet.
“You feel sorry, but there’s nothing you can do. You feel helpless. You feel useless.”
Some residents say the crash has brought people closer.
“You have more, ‘Hello, how are you?'” says lifelong resident Val Lins while walking to the legion hall.
At the hockey arena, average attendance at games was up this year and the number of season ticket holders jumped to 750 from about 400, says Broncos president Jamie Brockman.
There were also more out-of-province spectators in the stands, he says.
In what would turn out to be an unsuccessful yet celebrated playoff run, the Broncos played their final game on home ice against the Estevan Bruins on March 24.
Hundreds of fans dressed in Broncos jerseys showed up. In between periods, many wandered to a glass display containing tributes and photographs honouring last season’s team.
Carboni says he’s still processing the past year.
He wrestles with trying to understand how greatly people around the world — strangers to Saskatchewan — were touched by the crash.
Humboldt is healing, he says, and people are rebuilding their lives.
Carboni suggests Saturday not only marks the anniversary of the crash, but the beginning of another chapter when attention on Humboldt will start to fade.
“The world will never be the same for any of us, but we have each other.”
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press