HUMBOLDT, SK – When the puck drops tomorrow night for the Humboldt Broncos 2018-19 season opener, a total of 189 days will have passed since their world changed forever. Nobody – not the new coach, not the players, nobody – knows exactly how they’ll react to being on the ice for a game for the first time since the bus crash that killed 16 people and rocked this small part of the hockey world to its core.
Six years after the plane crash that essentially wiped out the Yaroslavl team in the KHL, the Broncos find themselves starting anew with equal parts heavy hearts and anticipation. GM-coach Nathan Oystrick has tried to stress to his players that once they are on the ice, it’s just another game. But how can it possibly be that? The eyes of the world are once again focused on Humboldt as the Broncos start the journey back to simply being another hockey team in the Saskatchewan Jr. League.
It will be emotional. It will be difficult and it will mark the start of a long road back. And it’s going to be a huge challenge. Nothing about this situation is normal. From Oystrick down to all but two of the players – Derek Patter and Brayden Camrud are the only remaining players from last year’s team – this is a group trying to forge an identity while having to live in the shadow of coach Darcy Haugen and the 15 others who were killed on that bus. It will be a long process, but one that will also help this community move forward. The Broncos are mindful, though, that the opening game won’t be a ‘healing’ game because there are a good number of people who have not yet, and may not ever, heal from the experience.
“I’ve said it time and time again that I’ll never be Darcy Haugen,” Oystrick said. “I’m not trying to be Darcy Haugen. I’m trying to be myself. The people who knew him loved him to death, but I’m trying to bring my own element and my own thoughts and ideas. I’m not trying to take his spot, that’s for sure.”
The Broncos have a 35-minute ceremony planned to honor those who were killed and injured, but it will actually be held after the game. The thinking is that will allow the players to concentrate on the task at hand, which will be a formidable one considering the Broncos are playing the defending league champion Nipawin Hawks. Nobody is certain how this team will do in the standings this season, but that’s secondary to the fact that the Broncos are simply showing up. It’s pretty obvious that they’re behind the curve when it comes to team building and preparing for the season. And that was something the Broncos learned when they set about to getting the team going again. You don’t think about it, but a lot of basic things a team needs on a day-to-day basis were destroyed in the crash.
“The first day I got here, a lot of things hadn’t been taken care of on the hockey side,” said assistant coach Scott Barney. “You understood that, but then you start thinking, ‘There’s no skate sharpening machine, there’s no water bottles, basically nothing. We were running around to 10 or 15 stores my first day here trying to find stuff. This community has been great. People will just do anything for you.”
Now comes the part where the team actually has to compete. And that will be a challenge. The team the Broncos will ice tomorrow night will have 13 rookies on it, 10 of them who played midget hockey last season. That’s a young team in a league that relies heavily on 20-year-old players. The Broncos will be relying on the steady hands of Oystrick and Barney, both of whom played in the NHL and have almost 30 years of pro hockey between them. The Broncos also have Mark Popovic, another former NHLer who fills the role of skill coach and personal development and leadership, on board. Guiding these young men through what could be a challenging season both on and off the ice will be their most important job.
“I think we’ll compete every single night,” Oystrick said. “I like our group. When we came to camp, our scouting staff told me what we had and I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t seen any of these players play, but I was pleasantly surprised. They’re ready to compete and ready to work.”
Camrud, who will be one of four alternate captains this season – the team did not name a captain out of respect to former captain Logan Schatz, one of the 11 players who died in the crash – also believes neither he nor his teammates will leave anything on the ice. “I think a lot of the new guys we have are great and we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” Camrud said. “I think we’re actually going to do really well this year.”
Simply stepping on the ice for Game 1 of the season five months after the worst tragedy in the history of Canadian sports is a triumph, regardless of where the Humboldt Broncos finish in the standings in 2018-19.