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Once a Bronco, Always a Bronco: Former players return to Humboldt in wake of tragedy

Former Broncos, including John Kirzinger and son Matthew who played with the team 30 years apart, have returned to Humboldt as a community attempts to begin the healing process.
Dulcie Kirzinger

Dulcie Kirzinger

HUMBOLDT, SK – After the community vigil ended Sunday night at the arena in Humboldt, they gathered unprompted and without a plan to center ice. They stood around the makeshift memorial and locked arms in a singular embrace. They hugged and talked and shared their grief and memories.

Once a Humboldt Bronco, always a Humboldt Bronco. Bronco Strong. Those terms took on more meaning than ever as former players spanning from the time the team was established in 1970 to present day gathered. And it was even more meaningful to John Kirzinger and his son Matthew, who both proudly wore No. 20 for the Broncos with 30 years between their tenures.

John doesn’t come to many Bronco games anymore and Matthew is a pilot based out of Calgary. But both of them felt an indescribable pull to be with other Broncos Sunday night, part of a fraternity that lost 15 of its own two nights before in a horrific bus accident. If you want a glimpse of how much this team matters in this small farming community and how much hockey is part of the fabric in Canada’s heartland, all you had to do was speak with John and Matthew Kirzinger on Sunday night.

Matthew was in a hotel room in Kamloops on Saturday night during a stopover and turned on the Winnipeg Jets game against the Chicago Blackhawks. He doesn’t watch much hockey these days, but decided to tune in. He noticed the players had the Broncos logo on their helmets and their nameplates had been replaced by ‘Broncos’. When he saw that, something in him beckoned him back to Humboldt.

“It was just time to go home,” Matthew said, his voice quivering. “This community is so amazing. I’m quite saddened by what has happened and I hope this (vigil) will start the mending for people. Those young men are truly amazing and we’re just here to support them and their families. This whole hockey community is truly amazing and I’m just so blessed to be able to call this my home.”

Talk to anyone who plays a sport and they’ll tell you that you never, ever forget your teammates. And that’s even more intense when the team wins a championship, the way Matthew’s Broncos won the RBC Cup national championship in 2008. (They won the Saskatchewan Junior League title and lost in the RBC championship final the next year.) Players who haven’t seen each other for years fall easily into conversation when they meet, even if their time together was only brief. The bond is that strong between teammates. And it’s even stronger between father and son. “When I was growing up I dreamed of playing hockey here,” Matthew said. “I remember seeing pictures of my dad playing and in news articles my mom had saved. To me, on that ice at the end of the ice and to see the flowers and think about the loss, and at the same time to be arm-in-arm with some of my best friends and look over and see my dad wearing the same jersey as me, I was quite…I can’t even describe it.”

John Kirzinger was born in Leroy, which is about 20 miles from Humboldt and he played for the Broncos in the mid-1970s. John remembers the franchise getting its start in 1970 and he would come to the old Leo Parker Arena in Humboldt to watch his new heroes and dream of skating on the same ice. “I remember sitting in the rafters in that old rink because it was so crowded that you couldn’t get in,” John said. “The whole night watching against Portage and sitting in those rafters watching the game and saying, ‘One day I want to play there.’ And it happened. And for a lot of people it didn’t. It was one of the round kind of rinks and they had these big 2-by-8s that would go on a 45 (degree angle) from the wall to the ceiling and I remember crawling up in there and sitting in there the whole game long because I couldn’t see the ice.”

Matthew went on to play collegiately for four years at Ferris State University and even appeared in two games for the St. John’s Ice Caps of the American League, which was the Winnipeg Jets’ farm team at the time. After his career with the Broncos, John went on to start his own construction business. In fact, the last time he played hockey was in a Broncos alumni game that Matthew watched when he was playing for the Broncos. Like everyone else associated with this organization, John and Matthew Kirzinger will take some time to heal. And they will move on. And they know their team will do the same.

“They will be back,” John said of the Broncos, “and they will be strong.”

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