HUMBOLDT, SK – You come into a situation like this as an outsider and you develop a preconceived notion that things like the bus accident that killed 16 people last Friday would cripple a little town like Humboldt. You come to see that almost everyone who lives here is connected with the tragedy in one way or another. You see the pain in their faces and their words and their tears. And you wonder how they can even function in the face of such devastating tragedy.
But they do. After closing the schools for one day, local officials – the president of the Humboldt Broncos is the director of education here and the team’s vice-president is the deputy director – decided to open the schools Tuesday morning. Businesses are running, with people clad in green and gold are helping wherever they can. People are going about their lives as they prepare to bury their dead, including the team’s trainer, Dayna Brons, who became the latest victim after dying from her injuries on Wednesday. Because apparently that’s how they do things around here.
If you would like a small glimpse of exactly what ‘Humboldt Strong’ really means, you need to hear about Kurt Leicht and his wife, Celeste Leray-Leicht. They lost their oldest son, 19-year-old Jacob, in the bus crash last Friday night. And while they prepare for his funeral on Friday at the Elgar Petersen Arena on Friday, they’ve been at home, holding their three other children tightly while trying to heal. But they are strong, as strong as any two people I have ever met. They’ve been relying on their faith and already talking about how this tragedy will direct them to a higher purpose.
For Celeste, that pivotal moment came Sunday morning, less than two days after the crash. She and her husband were preparing to go to Saskatoon to view Jacob’s body and visit the players who were in the hospital. Imagine that. Celeste was crying at her kitchen table. “I just said, ‘God, you’d better give me a purpose here because I fear the dark moments that lie ahead,’ ” Celeste said. “I said, ‘Jacob, help me out.’ And at that moment I just felt him and I knew.” And that’s what prompted her to try to make something of this tragedy, to try to use it to help others.
“I want to be part of something bigger,” Celeste said. “There is so much hurt in this province in so many ways, particularly with the First Nations community. There is so much tragedy and affliction in this world and they don’t get the attention they deserve sometimes. I have no idea what this is going to look like, but I want to start a movement of some sort. People are hurting in this province with the whole Colten Boushie trial and it’s time that people reach out. From hurt can come good.”
Many are hurting in Saskatchewan right now, along with the Leichts and the other families that have been affected. The outpouring of support, both from Saskatchewan and around the world, has been overwhelming. Just Wednesday morning, the Leichts were approached by country music stars Paul Brandt, who wrote Small Towns and Big Dreams dedicated to Humboldt, and the Hunter Brothers, who both asked if they could perform at Jacobs’ funeral.
But the hurt is there and it is very real and in many ways, it’s just beginning to sink in. In so many ways, things changed in unalterable ways the night of April 6, 2018, when the Humboldt Broncos headed to nearby Nipawin on the heels of a triple-overtime loss in Game 5 of their playoff series, trying to stave off elimination and stay in the series, with their fans not far behind them. Kurt and Celeste decided to drive themselves to the game instead of taking the fan bus and, in fact, passed the accident without even knowing their son’s team bus was involved. Emergency personnel were already on the scene. “We just thought it was a semi,” Kurt said. “We didn’t notice the bus in behind the semi. So we just kind of thought, ‘Let’s keep going, get our tickets, get a bite to eat.’ ”
As they made their way to the game, they received a phone call telling them the Broncos bus had been involved and were told to go to Nipawin. Kurt decided to go back to the accident scene. He saw the condition of the bus and was thankful there were any survivors. But as time went on and he didn’t hear about the condition of his son, the grim reality began to sink in.
“We were getting some word about which kids were going where, but Jacob’s name wasn’t coming up,” Kurt said. “By the time we left the site, I knew. I knew already. I just knew.” The first thing Kurt did was call the father of coach Darcy Haugan, whose parents moved to Humboldt from Alberta to be closer to their son and grandchildren after Darcy got the Broncos job. “I told him, ‘It doesn’t look good,’ ” Kurt said. “I told him, ‘I think we both lost our sons tonight.’ ”
Kurt and Celeste went on to Nipawin to get more information about their son and his teammates and that’s when it became official. “We’re getting news out of the hospital, you know, who’s where, what’s going on, and your son’s name is not coming up,” Kurt said. “I got to give the Dahlgens good news, which was positive. I walked over to Mark (Dahlgren, father of Bronco player Kaleb) and said, ‘Your son is in the hospital.’ But the rest of us sat there and waited for the RCMP. We kind of just said, ‘Give us some news so we can get home to our families.’ And the RCMP came and took us all aside and basically they had a list and said, ‘If your son’s not marked in a hospital here, I’m sorry. There are fatalities.’ ”
There have been signs already that have convinced both Kurt and Celeste that their son is in a better place. The first came when an old friend of Kurt’s dropped by to offer his condolences. Kurt grew up in a small town called Naicam, which is about 45 miles northeast of Humboldt, along with Scott Thomas, whose son Evan also died in the crash. This friend of Kurt Leicht and Scott Thomas was on his way to Naicam after the crash and noticed two bald eagles. “And he said, ‘That’s Evan and Jacob,’ ” Kurt said. “ ‘They’re just soaring.’ ”
Another came when Jacob’s girlfriend, who was travelling in Thailand, learned of the accident and was called home. Her father picked her up at the airport in Saskatoon and was driving from the airport to Humboldt. Jacob wore No. 11 with the Broncos. About halfway from Saskatoon to Humboldt, it was exactly 12:11 and the temperature gauge said minus-11. At that moment, they saw the most vibrant Northern Lights they had ever seen. It was solid green and looked like a bridge connecting Saskatoon to Humboldt. “He said that Jacob was carrying them to Humboldt,” Celeste said. “The First Nations are tied to the Northern Lights and I thought, ‘It could be something like the Northern Lights Movement for Kids.’ It’s not going to be about Jacob, but Jacob is going to be instrumental in it. He might be my guide. I have to shelve that for a little while, but I’m going to get going on that at some point.”
In the meantime, Kurt and Celeste Leicht have been spending much of their time taking Jacob’s friends and teammates for private viewings before the funeral, even taking the faithful family dog Sadie along to say goodbye. And this is how strong they are. They wanted their son’s surviving teammates to have license to move on.
“We went around and tried to see all of them at the hospital,” Kurt said. “And we just told them, ‘Be thankful. No regrets. Don’t be mad because somebody else passed away.’ We wanted to show our support. A hug back and forth goes a long way. I told them, his friends and the boys in the hospital, ‘Jacob just would have got out there and tried harder and worked harder.’ ”
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.