On Saturday afternoon at 4:50 Central Standard Time, exactly one year after the worst tragedy in the history of Canadian sports, people will gather at Elgar Petersen Arena to celebrate the lives of the 16 people who died and the 13 whose lives that were irrevocably changed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. It’s the same place many of those same people gathered for a vigil, where they went to grieve and seek solace and where they said their final goodbyes in the days following the accident. It’s also where they went to see the almost completely rebuilt Broncos play their first game in September.
They don’t talk about moving on these days in Humboldt. Instead, they talk about moving forward. They don’t use the word ‘closure’ because for many of the affected families, the devastating impacts of that crash will never, ever be tied up in a tidy bow. This is not a ‘new normal’ for them because nothing about any of this will ever be normal. Healing is another word that doesn’t apply, because for those closest to the tragedy, that will never happen. For many, Saturday will be another marker in a year filled with many of them. The themes of the service are belief and hope, but remembering that day and living it all over again will run the range of emotions. Not all of the players and families have chosen to attend.
“A lot of people ask me how Humboldt is doing and I don’t have an answer for that,” said Hayley Kennedy of the Partners Family Services, who set up a crisis center hours after the tragedy. “Some people are doing really well, others are not. Even within a family unit, how people are coping with the last year might be different. The one thing we know is moving forward is not a linear process. Some people have great days and great weeks and then they have days and weeks of great struggle and all of that is completely normal.”
It’s kind of reminding ourselves not to be stuck and to try to keep things the way they were because they’re not the way they were and they’re never going to be the way they were.
– Celeste Leray-Leicht
But from something terrible, there has been some good that has emerged. If you’re familiar with Prairie stoicism, you might have an indication of how difficult it is for people to talk about mental health issues in a place like Humboldt. But the bus crash has changed much of that. Those who are struggling with emotions from the crash are more willing to come forward now. And even those who had mental health issues not related to the tragedy are more open now. “There is an open dialogue on mental health in this community that wasn’t there before the tragedy,” Kennedy said. “There’s a change to recognizing that people will need help and if you need help that’s OK.”
There is also a sense that once the one-year marker has been passed, those who have spent the last 365 days immersed in the tragedy will have the permission to move forward. Celeste Leray-Leicht, whose son Jacob was killed in the crash, said it may allow those affected to honor the memories of those lost and honor those who survived through acts of charity and making positive change. And there is a lot of traction on that front. Led by Carol and Lyle Brons (whose daughter, Dayna, was killed) and former NHLer Chris Joseph (whose son, Jaxon, was killed), there is momentum for overhauling Canada’s trucking industry and for retrofitting and building buses so they’re equipped with seatbelts and making wearing them mandatory.
“It’s kind of reminding ourselves not to be stuck and to try to keep things the way they were because they’re not the way they were and they’re never going to be the way they were,” said Leray-Leicht. “I guess going through that motion gives us permission to keep moving forward as best we can.”
But Humboldt is also a community in transition, mired between moving forward and grappling with the enormity of what happened. There is no timeline on when that transition will be complete, but it won’t be anytime soon. There is still disbelief and there are almost daily reminders from within and by the outpouring of support from the hockey world. “There’s one side where you want to respect and pay honor to what occurred and at the same time recognizing that life continues to happen,” said former Broncos vice-president Randy MacLean. “How do you live in those two spaces?”
Joseph and his family will be in Humboldt this weekend. In fact, he said he can’t imagine being anywhere else on the one-year anniversary of the accident. The families are scheduled to visit the crash site Saturday morning, which is an agonizing 17 miles from the Centennial Arena on Guyle Fielder Way in Nipawin, where the Broncos were supposed to play Game 5 of their playoff series that night. Although he has been there three times, it will be the first time the families go as a group.
“I don’t know how much harder it will be than every other day, to be honest,” Joseph said. “People have told me, ‘It’s going to be a tough weekend,’ but we’ve had a lot of tough weekends. I don’t know what it will be like with 15 or 20 families there. We might get there and smile and laugh or we might get there and be 20 families crying. I don’t know what to expect, but my gut feeling tells me there will be a lot of hugs.”
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