The Humboldt Broncos returned to the ice Wednesday for the first time since the worst tragedy in Canadian sports history. Now, they face their next emotional hurdle: getting back on the bus and making the trip to Nipawin.
HUMBOLDT, SK – Thankfully, there is more than one way to get from Humboldt to Nipawin. So when the Humboldt Broncos step onto the bus for their first game in Nipawin since the April 6 crash that killed 16 people, they will snake their way there on back roads instead of heading north on Highway 35.
And as such, they’ll be able to avoid the intersection of Highways 35 and 335, where five months ago their bus collided with a tractor-trailer. As difficult as it will be to get on the bus, particularly for crash survivors Brayden Camrud and Derek Patter, having to pass the crash site and memorial that is there to the dead would have been an enormous challenge.
“We haven’t zipped that (the route to the game) up yet, but we’re thinking about a few different options,” Broncos coach Nathan Oystrick said Thursday, the day after the team’s emotional home opener. “I think just with the whole focus thing, going past the site, especially the day of the game, I don’t think that would be the best thing to do for the players.”
But it will still be an emotional time for the team. There is no getting around the fact that junior hockey teams have to travel long distances by bus, with the average road trip for the Broncos being about three hours and 15 minutes. The game in Nipawin is a little more than two hours away for the Broncos, which makes it the second-shortest road trip in the Saskatchewan Jr. League for them. The shortest trip for them in the 12-team league is to Melfort, which is just over an hour away. The longest is to Flin Flon, Man., which takes more than six hours. Getting on the bus and going for that first road trip will be another emotional hurdle for the team and the organization to clear, but there is no template on how to handle it. Which is why Oystrick isn’t quite sure how he and his team can make the experience less challenging.
“I’m not sure, to tell you the truth,” Oystrick said when asked how he would prepare his team. “Again, we’re just going to try to keep the focus on the hockey team. There are two guys (Camrud and Patter) on our team right now that we really make sure we take care of, but for me it’s just trying to make sure we focus, focus, focus on hockey and the task at hand. It’s maybe not the best way to do it, but I just feel with these younger players, they need something to really focus on, to put their mind to. They’re not going to forget we’re on the bus, they’re not going to forget we’re going to Nipawin, but giving them something else to think about will help.”
When the SJHL was making up its schedule for the 2018-19 season, it did so by placing the Broncos’ first two games against the team against which it played its last game last season. That was by design. After tonight’s game, with two of the most challenging emotional hurdles cleared, the Broncos will be able to set about focusing on the remaining 56 games of the season.
“I think it’s, I don’t want to say better because that’s not the right word, but it’s getting it over with,” Oystrick said. “It’s part of our process for healing and for moving forward.”
Adding to all of this is that it will be Nipawin’s first home game of the season since winning the SJHL title last season. The Hawks were playing the Broncos in the league semifinal and were leading the series 3-1 when the accident occurred. The Hawks were awarded the series and went on to defeat the Estevan Bruins in the league final before losing to the Steinbach Pistons of the Manitoba Jr. League in the Anavet Cup for the right to advance to the RBC Cup national championship.
There will undoubtedly be a championship banner raising ceremony for the team, a group that still has fresh memories of the crash itself, with nine players on this year’s team that were part of the team that played the Broncos last season. Which will make it another emotional night for a lot of the players involved.
“Having these two games and all this emotion, I think in a way, almost helps to glue us a little bit,” Oystrick said. “I don’t think Nipawin is going through exactly the same emotions we are, but Nipawin is having a tough time with it too. They were the other team. For a lot of people, hockey is an out and once the puck drops and you’re in your game mindset, you kind of forget about everything else.”