LAS VEGAS – The Humboldt Broncos took the stage in one of the Encore at Wynn Hotel’s vast ballrooms. The occasion was, in a sense, exciting. They were on hand for a special announcement from the NHL. They were meeting their idols, hockey's top superstars. But there were no smiles at first as they sat together, nine players, representing a group that lost many more than that in a tragic bus crash April 6. Their pain was still raw. There was no hiding that on their young faces.
But pain is why the NHL brought them to Las Vegas this week. The hockey world is, in many ways, a small community that comes together to help those who are suffering, and the NHL and NHL Players’ Association are doing what they can to bring the surviving Broncos and the town of Humboldt some happiness. Former NHLer Andrew Ference, now the NHL’s director of social impact, announced Tuesday the league has planned a special event for Humboldt Aug. 24. Washington Capitals left winger Chandler Stephenson, a Saskatoon native, promised he’d take the Stanley Cup to Humboldt if he won it, and he’s making good on that pledge. Stephenson will bring the 34.5-pound chalice to the Aug. 24 event, which will feature the Broncos players and have an on-ice component. NHLers will participate too, and Ference singled out St. Louis Blues center Brayden Schenn, also a Saskatoon native, for rallying players to take part.
“That’s what it’s all about – getting guys in the locker room with NHL guys, sharing the space,” Ference said. “That’s where we’re most comfortable. Sharing stories, supporting each other and just being together.”
For so many of the Broncos, real life has only just started to set in. There was a massive outpouring of support following the tragedy, when the story was a major part of the news cycle. The gofundme.com campaign for the survivors raised more than $15 million. And the weeks and months that followed, for many of the survivors, were spent rehabilitating. Ryan Straschnitzki, for instance, has been undergoing physiotherapy in Philadelphia and is about to return home to Alberta. Now the Broncos must look ahead to resuming their lives. For Graysen Cameron, that will mean becoming an assistant coach on an AAA team. Goaltender Jacob Wassermann, paralyzed from the waist down, said Tuesday he plans to embark on a sledge hockey career because “I can’t get out of hockey. I’ve been in it my whole life.”
The hardest part of the Broncos’ physical and emotional recovery looms in months to come. For Tyler Smith, the path to moving on means staying together as a team even if that doesn’t happen on the ice. Reuniting in Vegas meant the world.
“It’s the best thing ever,” he said. “We all wish that we lived in the same neighborhood. It’s pretty important to try and get together as much as we can just to heal. Just being together, sharing stories, and kind of being a team again is important. A lot of guys, we can cry together, we can laugh together, just heal in our own way. And it’s a blessing to be able to be here together.”
Soon, the Broncos will fly home to the daily grind. As long as they’re here, however, the NHL can help.
“You see it in their faces that they’ve been through a lot,” said Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo. “They’ve seen a lot. And you just try to make them at ease as much as you can. That’s something that’s easy to do, if only for a few moments. If you can do that, you try. That’s what it feels like. You try to put yourself in their shoes, but it’s impossible.”
The Broncos were thrilled to meet their NHL heroes, but the feeling was mutual. If anything, they’ve inspired the game’s best players more than the players have inspired them.
“It’s special for us to meet them, to know what they’ve gone through,” said Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid. “To see them here in Vegas and to take in the event just speaks to how strong they all are, how amazing it is that they’re able to be here. For us players, it’s special to be able to talk to them. They’re definitely a symbol of strength and bravery.”
No one would believe for a second the Aug. 24 event can undo the irreparable damage of the crash, but it will attempt give Humboldt’s citizens something they likely haven’t experienced for many months: joy. It’s the best the sport can offer, a way of celebrating the team members lost and those soldiering on so admirably.
“So many have been touched by this,” said NHLPA representative Chris Campoli, who took the stage with Ference for the announcement. “We’ve lived this life. We’ve spent those hours on buses developing relationships with teammates, and we have that understanding, so it really hits home. And what do we do in the hockey community? We come together.”