It was April 25th at 5:30 p.m. Kevin Garinger remembers it because it was 19 days after everybody’s world changed and exactly three weeks after he had last seen his billet-son’s smiling face. Garinger was supposed to be in Saskatoon to meet his dead billet-son’s parents for dinner, but there he was sitting at the end of his bed in his housecoat, paralyzed by grief and unable to face the day.
It was at that moment that a smoke detector went rogue in the basement, right beside the room where Conner Lukan had been staying. Until that time, Garinger couldn’t bring himself to even go into his basement and he certainly couldn’t find the strength to enter Conner's room. But he dealt with the alarm and turned and entered the room. He lay on Conner's bed and poured his heart out. Then he went about getting showered, dressed and heading to Saskatoon from Humboldt to meet Conner’s parents for dinner.
“There’s no question that Conner was telling me, ‘Get down here. You need to get going and see my family,’ ” Garinger said. “Very profound.”
Kevin Garinger, the man who shepherded the Humboldt Broncos and much of the hockey world through the darkest period in the history of Canadian sports, stepped down after one year as president of the Saskatchewan Jr. League team at its annual meeting on Tuesday night. When Garinger, who is also the director of education for the local public school board, assumed the volunteer position a year ago, he did so on the proviso that he would do it for just one year. But he could not have imagined that year would be the most difficult of his life.
When the Humboldt Broncos step on the ice for the first day of training camp on Friday, almost five months after the bus crash that killed 11 players and five members of the team’s support staff, they will do so without Garinger holding down an official role. It’s likely he would have given up his presidency anyway, but the emotional energy and the toll it has taken on him made the decision an easy one.
“I have to take some time for myself,” Garinger said. “That may sound selfish, but it’s something that is a necessity for me.”
If it is indeed selfish – and it isn’t – Garinger has earned the right to think about himself for the first time in months. He was the face of the franchise in the days after the crash, facing the crush of international media attention, tending to the players who had survived the tragedy and making arrangements on the fly. The record donations that poured in from the GoFundMe effort after the crash had to be managed. Garinger attended all but a couple of the 16 funerals and those he didn’t were only because they conflicted with other Bronco funerals. He did it all while mourning the loss of all of the people with whom he had a working relationship and while dealing with the death of Lukan, who had come to live with Garinger and his wife when he joined the Broncos last season.
As the weeks and months passed, Garinger continued to be the face of the organization attending countless events, going to the NHL draft in Dallas to address the league’s GMs and accepting the E.J. McGuire Award of Excellence on behalf of the organization. Garinger has hardly had any time to properly grieve. He has spent much of his time since the tragedy tending to the families who lost their loved ones, which left him almost no time to help the team prepare for the coming season. With much of that done, it’s time for someone else to take up the cause.
“I’m aware that people have lost their sons and daughters and husbands and dads and that’s something that sits in my heart,” Garinger said. “And it makes me realize that, ‘Man, how can you not put them ahead of you?’ They’re the ones who have experienced the worst and we have families that are struggling with that.”
Garinger plans to be on hand at the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt the night of Sept. 12 when the Broncos open the 2018-19 season. It will be an emotional night for everyone involved in that community, but it will also signal a much-needed renewal.
“It’s a way of saying, ‘We’re back,’ ” Garinger said. “It will allow us to get back to hockey. The people we lost wore that crest proudly. We will never, ever forget our family, but we’ll play the game of hockey because that is what they would want us to do.”