HUMBOLDT, SK – In the days leading up to Wednesday night, Humboldt Broncos GM-coach Nathan Oystrick tried to tell anyone who would listen that his team’s 2018-19 season opener was just another game. It was a valiant attempt to inject some normalcy into a situation for which there was no template. He tried and he failed. Miserably.
Because there was nothing, absolutely nothing, normal about the Humboldt Broncos 2-1 loss to the Nipawin Hawks to kick off the Saskatchewan Jr. League season. This game was never, ever going to just be another game. Sure, they played hockey. At one point in a break in the action, the PA system blared Cotton Eye Joe. There was a 50-50 draw. And the beer lines, where you could get one for six dollars or a punch card of 10 for $50, were long and sales were brisk. That pretty much checks off all the boxes required for a hockey game in Canada.
But fans customarily don’t cry at just another hockey game. Young men don’t stand arm-in-arm burying their faces in each other’s shoulders. And they don’t follow the game by unveiling 29 banners, the first 16 commemorating the people who died in a bus accident five months prior and 13 more celebrating the lives of those who survived it. If it had been just another game, people like Kurt Leicht and Celeste Leray-Leicht, Scott and Laurie Thomas and Lawrence Hunter and Shauna Nordstrom would have been watching their sons play instead of watching others do it because their sons could not.
This was a night that needed to happen and a game that needed to be played. The Broncos were very mindful of referring to it as a ‘healing’ game because nothing has really healed yet. And it may never. The wounds are just as gaping as they were five months ago for the people most closely involved. “I’m not sure how to best classify this game,” said former NHL defenseman Chris Joseph, whose son, Jaxon, was one of the 16 killed. “It’s clearly a healing game for the community, for the nation and for the Broncos, for sure. It’s a huge step. For the 16 families and the 13 families of the boys who are still around, it’s not healing, but it’s probably turning a page and chapter. It’s a good step and it’s a step that we all needed to take.”
For the Broncos, though, there is a sense that a major hurdle has been cleared. For five months they have been the focus of the hockey world. Prior to that, they were just another junior team in Canada full of young kids chasing their dreams all over the Prairies. The bus accident made both the dead and the living household names in Canada and much of the hockey world. Since the accident, they’ve been forced to relive it countless times to people who want to know their innermost thoughts and what kind of perspective they’ve gained from all of this. They did not ask for any of this and they’re tired. The probably want to be left alone. And nobody could blame them for that. The Broncos will face another huge challenge when they travel to Nipawin Friday night for their first road game of the year. That was where they were headed April 6 when a tractor-trailer ran a stop sign and plowed into their bus. Word is the team will be taking an alternate route to this game. Then, after that game, the team will go about the task of trying to win games and do all the things other hockey teams do.
“I don’t know what normal is,” Oystrick said after the game, “but we’re just going to come to the rink every morning and compete and work. That’s what we have to do moving forward and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
Everything about the night was beautiful and touching and, remarkably, not overdone. The banners unveiled after the game will now take their place in the rafters of the Elgar Petersen Arena along with the midget team that won the Prince Albert Female Hockey Tournament ‘A’ Side in 2017 and the novice teams that won the East Central Minor Hockey League titles last season and in 2015-16. It’s going to get really crowded up there. Nos. 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 24, 27, 28 and 31 will never again be worn by any other Bronco, nor will 15, 23 or 26 after Tyler Smith, Derek Patter and Brayden Camrud finish their junior careers. The boys who survived the crash and were at the game were at times overwhelmed with emotion during the ceremony, with a couple of them going to their knees at various points.
“When I see the surviving players, my heart really breaks,” Joseph said. “I see them taking a knee because they can’t handle it, that really affects me.”
Through it all, alternate captain Brayden Camrud, still in his full equipment, skated from teammate to teammate, hugging them and offering consolation. In the 60 minutes prior, he was by far the best player on the ice. He drove possession like a demon, contributed an assist on the only Humboldt goal, played in all situations and created a number of outstanding scoring chances. He did everything but score. And for those who think the score of the game and the fact the Broncos lost was secondary in all of this, they could not be more wrong. It mattered to Brayden Camrud. It mattered to the Broncos. If Camrud plays the rest of this season the way he did in Game 1, he will have higher-level teams lining up to have him in their lineup next season.
“I wanted to win,” Camrud said after the game. “I feel like I let people down.”
Imagine that. Brayden Camrud let nobody down. The Humboldt Broncos let nobody down. At a time when it was probably as difficult as it has ever been, they lifted us up. As team chaplain, Pastor Sean Brando said during the ceremony in paraphrasing late coach Darcy Haugen, “Gentlemen, it’s a great day to be a Bronco.”