NIPAWIN, SK – It would be fair to say it has been a lights-out start to the Saskatchewan Jr. League season for Declan Hobbs. No, wait. It would be a huge understatement. In the space of 48 hours, the 20-year-old goalie for the Nipawin Hawks won two games, stopped 88 of 89 shots he faced and picked up his ring for winning the league championship last season.
You’ve probably never heard of Declan Hobbs. You may be familiar with his older brother, Connor, who led all Western League defensemen in points two years ago, won a gold medal for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament in 2014 and is ranked by The Hockey News as the fifth-best prospect for the Washington Capitals. In many ways, Connor Hobbs was as traumatized by and is mourning the Humboldt Broncos bus crash as much as anyone.
What we tend to forget in all of this is that the night that bus crashed and 16 people were killed five months ago, there was a team waiting to play them that night in the playoffs. That team was the Nipawin Hawks, who have nine players on this year’s squad who were there last spring. Hockey is a small world, an even smaller one in a place like Saskatchewan. Hobbs had childhood friends on that bus, people such as Brayden Camrud, who survived. And in a cruel irony, his parents were en route to the game from Saskatoon with Scott Thomas, their family’s chiropractor and father of Evan, who was killed in the crash. In fact, it was Declan who called his parents, not knowing that Scott was in the car with them, to inform them of the crash and how bad it was. At that point, they were five minutes from the crash site themselves.
So the Broncos home opener Wednesday night, which the Hawks won 2-1, and their own home opener Friday night, in which they beat the Broncos 4-0, opened up a lot of wounds for them, too.
“I’m pretty sure every single guy on our team knew at least one guy on their team,” Hobbs said. “It was tough. Really tough. But life moves on and we’ve got to move forward and what you can do to make your life better. Every game, I play for them and I play for my family.”
The SJHL made the difficult decision that it would complete the season without the Broncos. It awarded the series to the Hawks, who were leading the series 3-1 going into Game 5. The Hawks went on to beat the Estevan Bruins in five games in the final to take the league title, but they did it with heavy hearts. Michael Grant, who was an assistant captain with the Hawks, missed Game 1 of the league final because he was a pallbearer at Logan Boulet’s funeral.
“It just ran up and down our team,” said Hawks coach-GM Doug Johnson. “You lost friends, you lost brothers, you lost colleagues.”
The night of the accident, Hobbs and his teammates were in the middle of their pre-game stretching routine when they learned of the accident. They immediately knew it was very, very bad. And their mindset went instantly from preparing to win a game and a playoff series to trying to digest the enormity of the tragedy and doing what they could to comfort the parents of the Humboldt players, who were gathering at a Nipawin church waiting to hear the fate of their loved ones.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to explain what it was like telling those guys about the accident,” Johnson said. “A lot of them knew about it already and you see 25 guys break down and start crying and it’s pretty tough. Just the process of coming back and how they battled through the league final, seeing the emotions and the good days and the bad days and how it affected them, I don’t think anyone can truly understand and I can’t say how proud I am of how they handled it. Incredibly difficult is about the best way to put it.”
Johnson chuckles a little when he’s asked how a team reconciles winning a championship and allows itself to celebrate a great accomplishment with a pall of grief cast over it. As Johnson points out, the 2018 championship will always be remembered for the accident. And he understands that. He said his team felt the pressure to win for the Broncos since they were playing the Broncos in that playoff series and winning the championship was more a relief than anything else, like a huge weight had been removed from their shoulders.
“And they celebrated because they accomplished something that is incredibly hard to do,” Johnson said. “For a brief moment, I think they were able to take themselves away from the tragedy and enjoy it. The only bad thing is that every time you think about winning the championship, it’s associated with the Humboldt tragedy.”
One way to forge new memories would be to go out and win another championship this season. Even though more than half of the team graduated, the Hawks are off to a good start. And they have last season’s goaltender of the year in Hobbs, who is looking to repeat the feat before moving on, he hopes, to play at the University of Saskatchewan.
Early in the game Friday night, Hobbs stopped Camrud and after the whistle, Camrud smiled at his childhood friend and the two exchanged words. He said the two were talking prior to the game Wednesday night in Humboldt and that Camrud told Hobbs that it was ‘show time’ because the game was on TV, Camrud was going to shoot high on him. When the Hawks were playing soccer and stretching before the game in the concourse of the Centennial Arena in Nipawin, Camrud and Derek Patter (the other Bronco from this year’s team who survived the crash) came up to chat.
“Just having fun,” Hobbs said. “Having fun with people who are still here.”