It was the night of Sept. 12 and I was standing on the ice of the Elgar Petersen Arena chatting with former NHLer Chris Joseph. The Humboldt Broncos had just played their first game of the 2018-19 season, losing 2-1 to the Nipawin Hawks, a little more than five months after the bus crash that killed 16 people who were on their way to a playoff game, but were actually doing nothing more than chasing their dreams.
Chris Joseph’s son, Jaxon, died in that crash. He talked about the grieving process and the fleeting nature of life, how we have to cherish the people we have in our lives regardless of how long they’re there. I started to say something like, “I know with my own kids…” and I thought of my boys, 22-year-old Connor and 19-year-old Lukas and how they were about the same age as the kids on that bus. And I began sobbing. There were a number of times during the Humboldt aftermath that I shed tears, but this was a first. You try your best not to be part of the story, but this was the first time I had ever cried while interviewing someone. Chris Joseph, who was so strong and eloquent, hugged me after we spoke.
That’s how powerful this story was. To say it was the biggest story in the hockey world in 2018 – with all due respect to Germany almost winning the gold medal in the Olympics, the magical Vegas Golden Knights and Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals finally shedding their Stanley Cup demons – is a given. Nothing even came close to equaling the magnitude of this story in 2018.
The night of April 6, 2018 will forever be burned into the consciousness of hockey fans. We were all about to take in the final weekend of the NHL regular season in anticipation of the playoffs when the news broke that the Humboldt Broncos had been involved in a crash with a tractor trailer en route to a playoff game against Nipawin. The more time passed, the worse the news got until the grim reality began to sink in that this was the worst tragedy in the history of Canadian sports. In the coming days, we would learn that 10 players died, along with the Broncos beloved coach Darcy Haugan, assistant coach Mark Cross, athletic therapist Dayna Brons, play-by-play announcer Tyler Bieber, statistician Brody Hinz and bus driver Glen Doerksen.
Two days later, I found myself driving from Saskatoon to Humboldt. The brilliant spring prairie sun was not enough to blot out the grey pall that had been cast over the place. There was grief and despair everywhere and I felt like an interloper. But I quickly found people there who were eager to share not only their grief, but their memories of those who died. Broncos president Kevin Garinger, who had to deal with losing one of his “billet sons” and handle the onslaught of attention, was exceedingly courteous and warm. Kurt Leicht and Celeste Leray-Leicht, whose son Jacob was killed in the crash, invited me into their home where we sat in Jacob’s bedroom and talked about him. The sheer magnitude of grief was like nothing I have ever experienced before, nor hopefully ever will again.
A lot of us who were there in April went back for the Broncos’ home opener on Sept. 12. There had been some healing, but it would be folly to think that those families or that community would be able to make any sense of what happened or be able to manage their grief. Some never will. Teammates who came back to mourn again, some of whom are confined to wheelchairs and others who still face a long road to recovery, were still broken. But you speak to Kaleb Dahlgren, who is at York University and hopes to play hockey there next year, and you begin to see some light. You listen to Brayden Camrud, who wants to make the most of his last season of junior hockey and dedicate the rest of his career to his fallen teammates, and you get inspired.
The Broncos played their first road game two nights later in Nipawin, the same town they were an agonizing 18 miles from when their bus crashed. Early in the game, Camrud had a point-blank chance to score on Nipawin goalie Declan Hobbs, who was one of the devastated players for the Nipawin team who waited for news on the Broncos the night of the crash. Hobbs stuck his glove out and made a terrific save and Camrud simply smiled and winked at his friend.
At this time of year, I can’t imagine what those families endured going through the first Christmas without their son, daughter, husband, father or soul mate. In Jacob Leicht’s room was a crossbow he received as a Christmas present in 2017, one he was never able to use. You can only hope they found some solace in the memories and support they have from the rest of the hockey world.
Despite having only two returning players and no coaching staff, the Humboldt Broncos rebuilt and have constructed quite an inspiring story this season in the Saskatchewan Jr. League. Many thought they would be fodder for the rest of the league in 2018-19, but despite recent struggles, they went into the Christmas break second in their division with a 21-13-3 record. Perhaps they can fashion one of the most unlikely comeback stories ever and compete for an SJHL championship, perhaps not. But that doesn’t even matter. The fact they even showed up in the face of the tragedy they endured already makes them champions.