HUMBOLDT, Sask. – The media room at the Elgar Peterson Arena that just a couple of days ago was the epicenter of one of the world’s biggest stories now sits empty and quiet. The crisis counselors have left, but there is a sign on the doors of the arena that gives a number to call for those who are in distress. For the next couple of days, the same ice surface where the Humboldt Broncos played will serve as a chapel as this place begins to bury its dead.
It is time to go. It is time for the fine, brave, strong, resilient, kind people of this rural community to be left alone to grieve. Tomorrow will mark one week since the horrific bus accident that killed 16 members of the Broncos in the worst sports tragedy in Canadian history. The time since then has been excruciating for the people who were affected by this, but the difficult times are just beginning. Much of the international media has left to cover the next big thing in the 24-hour news cycle. Those of us who are fortunate enough to chronicle pucks for a living have moved on to the NHL playoffs, which somehow don’t seem quite so important at the moment.
Humboldt will now be alone with its emotions. The tsunami of activity is winding down, but the most difficult times lie ahead. But if this tragedy has taught your trusty correspondent anything, it’s that the human spirit is remarkably resilient. And when that human spirit resides in the Prairies, it is all the more so. You hear stories about how stoic and remarkably tough people from around here are and you wonder if it can really be true. But it is. People around here are a lot like Wendel Clark, who grew up in Kelvington, which is 80 miles due east of Humboldt.
So it was not a surprise to learn that the Saskatchewan Junior League unanimously decided to continue with its playoffs, with the final being played between the Estevan Bruins and Nipawin Hawks. It was not a surprise that Estevan coach-GM Chris Lewgood said that when his team passes the crash site on Friday, one week after the accident, it will honor the Broncos and confront their emotions head-on.
My guess is that the people of Humboldt and the Broncos will grieve, they will have their difficult days and nights, and they will come out of this on the other side stronger and more united than they were before. They will never, ever forget what happened the night of April 6, 2018, but they will not allow it to define them. One day, they will allow themselves the luxury of being happy again. They will play again, they will win again, and they will celebrate the triumphs in life.
I spent the better part of five days here with these people during the worst times of some of their lives. When I encountered the tireless city manager Joe Day on Tuesday afternoon, I told him not to take it the wrong way, but I was amazed that a place the size of Humboldt could handle the crush that came its way, particularly with no opportunity to plan for it. They were unfailingly kind and accommodating, helpful and courteous to interlopers who wanted answers they didn’t have.
As I leave this place, I do so with a heavy heart, but strangely not quite as heavy as when I arrived here. And there are some people who have left an indelible impression:
– Randy MacLean, a Montreal transplant who is the vice-president of the Broncos and older brother to Donald MacLean, who played for 18 teams in the NHL, minors and Europe. At a time when he was being run ragged, he spent an hour-and-a-half with me telling stories about those who died in the crash. I ran out of questions before he ran out of answers, then when it was over he asked me if what he said was good enough.
– Kurt Leicht and Celeste Leray-Leicht, whose 19-year-old son Jacob was among the 16 people who died in the crash. They not only allowed me into their home, but into their son’s bedroom where we sat and talked for 90 minutes. Jacob’s story will be told in the next issue of The Hockey News and I have never wanted to do right by a subject more in my career. The strength these people showed was remarkable. Their faith is unshakeable and their desire to find a higher purpose from all of this is as selfless as their son, who was described by teammates as the kind of player who did anything for his team and teammates.
– Broncos president Kevin Garinger, who runs the city’s schools during the days and volunteers with the team by night. His leadership through this crisis was the thing of legends. It’s easy to forget that one of the players, Conner Lukan, was billeting with his family so for him, the loss was very, very real. The players who died were part of his team, too. Dealing with all of that, Garinger provided the kind of leadership that gave people here some hope that everything would somehow be OK. After promising to sit down with me, he learned I was leaving first thing Thursday morning, so he came to my hotel after leaving the rink at midnight and spent more than an hour chatting. Coincidentally, Randy MacLean is his deputy director of education with the local school board. With them at the helm, the schools in Humboldt are in great shape. And so are the Broncos.
– And finally, the people of this place who showed up in the thousands for the vigil on Sunday night and kept the city running in the midst of despair. They tied ribbons around trees, they printed thousands of T-shirts, they gave away free meals in exchange for a voluntary donation to the Broncos. They were exemplary.
By the time you read this, I will likely be in the air headed east or back on the ground in Toronto. It was an honor and a privilege to share their grief and tell some of their stories. None of us can claim that our pain is equal to theirs, particularly for the families who lost children, husbands and fathers. But as the outpouring of emotion and support from all over the world has shown, we do share some of that pain.
God bless you, Humboldt. I will never forget you. We will never forget you.