HUMBOLDT, SK – In the five months that have passed since the bus accident that took 16 lives, along with all their hopes and dreams, on a stretch of Saskatchewan highway, the hockey world has mourned along with the Humboldt Broncos. We could all feel their pain. And somewhere along the line, ‘We are all Broncos’ became words of comfort as we tried to deal with the senselessness and randomness of the tragedy.
They are lovely, soothing words. And they have all the right intentions. But they’re not true. We are not all Broncos. We can mourn, we can relate, we can all leave hockey sticks and candles outside our doors, but we simply cannot comprehend the level of pain those closest to this tragedy felt then, still feel now and will feel for the rest of their lives. Former NHLer Chris Joseph, whose son Jaxon was one of the 10 Bronco players who died in the crash, is one of those people. He and his family made the trek from the Edmonton suburb of St. Albert to Humboldt for the Broncos home opener Wednesday night and were there when the banner retiring their son’s No. 13 was unveiled. (Jaxon's No. 11 was also retired Saturday by the Melfort Mustangs, with whom he played parts of two seasons before being traded to the Broncos.)
Later, as they took pictures of the banner on the ice surface at the Elgar Petersen Arena, they managed a few smiles and laughs through the tears. But in many ways the pain is as strong as it was on April 6 when Jaxon died. Joseph, standing against the boards his son patrolled as a member of the Broncos last season, was kind enough to share his thoughts on opening night from the perspective of a parent who lost a loved one.
The first game of the season was termed a ‘healing’ game, part of the process that would help all of us move forward. Chris Joseph wasn’t sure how to classify the game. He acknowledged it would help the community of Humboldt and the hockey world and that it would be a significant step for the families involved, but it was not a ‘healing’ game for the 16 families that lost loved ones and the 29 that where irrevocably affected.
“We definitely won’t move on,” Joseph said. “I try to tell people from my grief, there’s a hole. There’s a big hole in my life. And over time, the hole doesn’t shrink. The hole stays the same. I’m going to build up support around that hole. So if I have this emptiness in me, I believe it will be there for the rest of my life. I’ll just build up some strength around it to help me cope and help me deal with it.”
Joseph said seeing his son’s former teammates, Brayden Camrud and Derek Patter, hit the ice for the first time was emotional, but he said his heart really broke for the surviving players who were clutching each other and crying when the banners were unveiled. Had it just been any other season, the boys on this team would have gone their separate ways in their careers and lives, always having that bond of being teammates. But the tragedy has inextricably linked them, as it has the families of all who were on the bus.
“I’ve said often that I lost Jaxon, but I’ve gained a family,” Joseph said. “I really have, all of us. It goes to the kids who are playing this year to the ones that are gone, family members, everybody. We’ve all become very close.”
And each of those families, while bonded together by grief, has a unique story to tell. In all the cases, it was a happy story with a very sad ending. Joseph said he has come to realize that over the past couple of months, that losing his son has helped him appreciate what he still has and, more importantly, to show that to his loved ones.
“There are days where I think to myself, ‘You know, Jaxon gave me 20 wonderful years.’ And it’s a beautiful thing,” Joseph said. “I would have loved to have 75 years, but I got 20 and they were wonderful. And now you can look back on them and cherish them. Maybe he taught me to appreciate the other people in my life a little bit more and tell them that I love them and not wait for tomorrow. So I think there were a lot of good things that we learned, as hard as it is. And I miss him every day and I cry almost every day, but you have to try to take some of the positives out of it. If someone said that to me, that you could only have 20 years with your son right now, I would take it.”
Among the survivors are Layne Matechuk and Morgan Gobeil, who remain in hospital recovering from brain injuries and face a long road to recovery. Ryan Straschintzki and Jacob Wassermann, who was a candidate for last year’s NHL draft, face the prospect of the rest of their lives in wheelchairs. The road back isn’t easy for any one of them, whether they survived the crash or they are family members trying to pick up the pieces.
“There are many days when I look at some of the other boys in the shape they’re in,” Joseph said. “Would I take it? Absolutely. I would take anything. And that’s very, very hard. But maybe that’s what this is about. Maybe we should appreciate what we have and just take what we’ve got. And if what I got was 20 years with Jaxon, then I just have to accept it and take it and I am very grateful for every second I had with him.”