HUMBOLDT, SK – Four days after the worst tragedy in Canadian sports history, this small rural town in Saskatchewan is trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy. “It’s a new normal,” said Humboldt Broncos vice-president Randy McLean. The schools opened today, the memorial to the team at the Elgar Peterson Arena was taken down and the international media is starting to disperse. The A&W was offering free meals in exchange for a donation to the Broncos.
But in some ways, it’s still so impossible to get away from the pall that the tragedy has cast over this place. The cars belonging to the dead and injured – including coach Darcy Haugen’s Ford Silverado 4X4 emblazoned with the Broncos logo and the message #characterdeterminessuccess on the back - remain parked in the same spots at the arena as they were last Friday before their occupants got on that bus. The flowers placed on each of the windshields are wilting, but the memories are not.
The last people to visit the memorial at the arena were longtime teammates of some of the Broncos and their coach from midget hockey. Before they realized their dream of playing for the Broncos, Jacob Leicht, Morgan Gobeil and Jacob Wassermann all played for the Humbolt Broncos Midget AA team that took home league titles in 2014-15 and 2015-16, the second of which went along with a provincial championship. Gobeil and Wassermann are fighting for their lives in a Saskatoon hospital. Leicht’s funeral is set for Friday in Humboldt.
There were five of their former teammates there – Colton Halvorson, 20, Daigon Elmy, 19, Austin Hilts, 18, and Tanner Brockman, 21, along with Chris Hamilton, 31, who coached the back-to-back provincial champions. Halvorson, Elmy and Hilts all have tattoos with their teammates’ names and numbers on them, Elmy and Hilts on their backs and Halvorson on his wrist. Elmy and Hilts have Leicht’s No. 11 sweater with a heart monitor in the background to signify Gobeil’s still beating heart. “I’m not quite so impulsive,” Brockman said. “Mine is coming down the road.”
Prior to Game 4 of the 1974 Stanley Cup final, Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero wrote a message on the team blackboard that has since become a mantra for teams everywhere: “Win today and we walk together forever.” The kids on those championship teams feel the same way. They feel as though they are walking with Leicht in death and with Gobeil and Wassermann as they overcome their injuries.
“Anybody who has won, you could speak with Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews about the stuff they’ve won and they’re going to say the exact same thing as guys who play in small-town, Humboldt, Saskatchewan,” Hamilton said. “I spent more time with you guys than my wife.”
“Words honestly can’t describe the feelings and the emotions you have playing with guys,” Halvorson said. “You spend however many months with the guys over the winter, damn near every weekend and how many days a week at practice? You become more than teammates. You become brothers.”
And therein lies the reason for the team’s success. There was a time when small towns like Humboldt and Kirkland Lake and Ste-Justine populated NHL rosters with players, but the reality is that these same small, rural centers struggle to even have enough kids to put a team together. And that’s what happened in Humboldt. In fact, the year before the team won its first provincial title, there was no Midget team because not enough players showed up for tryouts. “In our first practice with Chris, we couldn’t even do a flow drill,” Brockman recalled.
“I coached this team for three years and in that time I think I cut three players and ended up calling one back,” Hamilton said. “Anybody who showed up had a role. You had a role. The first year we won provincials I cut one guy and we started fall camp with two D-men. In the three years we had that team, I think we lost 18 games in total. We lost one playoff game in regulation in three years.”
“I didn’t know any of the guys and within two weeks they became family,” Halvorson said.
“I remember the first seat I came to, I sat down near Morgan (Gobeil) and there was a bag there and Morgan just kicked the bag and pushed the sticks and sat down beside me,” Elmy said. “And that’s exactly where we sat for the two years we played together.”
Gobeil could have gone to a bigger town to play AAA hockey, but stayed behind in Humboldt because he also wanted to play high school football, where Tyler Bieber, the Broncos play-by-play man who was also killed in the crash, helped coach the team. All of them agreed that Leicht was the most selfless player with whom they every played, the kind of kid who would play any position and do anything if it meant helping the team win. McLean remembers sitting at a game during the provincial final in 2016 and watching the midget Broncos play, then turning to Haugen and saying about Leicht, “We have to have that kid on our team.”
And Leicht went on to live the dream by playing with the Broncos. He wasn’t the most skilled player they had, but he was one of the toughest and most determined. They joked that he never got hit because he was so small. “Smallest guy on the ice with the biggest heart,” Halvorson said of Leicht. “Out of anyone on the two midget teams, he was the one who deserved to be here the most. He would go into the corner with some of the biggest guys in the league and he would be winning puck battles.”
Hamilton, who lost two fingers and half of another one on his right hand working on an oil rig in Alberta, showed up to practice four games into that first season and basically took the team over. He demanded his players stand up for and respect each other, and everything they did, they did together. He recalled the scene from the movie Miracle when the U.S. Olympic team finally came together after an exhausting practice, realizing then that they were in it together and weren’t representing their schools or their states, but the entire country.
“Once any team figures that out, that team is going to win,” Hamilton said. “They’ll do anything, they’ll block shots. They’ll be a Jacob Leicht. They’ll play anywhere they have to to win those championships.”
The team received championship rings for the 2015 championship and those who won the next year had “Back-to-back” inscribed inside them. Now they’re more united than ever, in part by grief and in part by hope and good thoughts for those who are recovering. Halvorson also has on his wrist tattoo the No. 20 worn by captain Logan Schatz, who died in the crash and ‘Layne,' to pay tribute to Broncos defenseman Layne Matechuk, who is another player fighting for his life and who played minor hockey with Halvorson for many years.
“He’s my brother,” Halvorson said of Matechuk. “I grew up with him from the time we were three years old. I need Jacob and Schatzy with me forever and Layne, he’s my brother and I can’t live without him. No matter what happens, I need him with me.”
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