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Two years later, former Humboldt Bronco Brayden Camrud feels "blessed to be alive"

Two years ago today, Brayden Camrud looked around the dressing room at the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt, Sask., and he could see there was no quit in him or any of his teammates. And then, everything changed.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago today, Brayden Camrud looked around the dressing room at the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt, Sask., and he could see there was no quit in him or any of his teammates. Two days earlier, the Humboldt Broncos had lost 6-5 in overtime to go down 3-1 in their playoff series against the Nipawin Hawks, three games after they had lost in double overtime in Game 1. They were that close. As they packed their hockey bags for the two-hour bus ride northeast on Highway 35 to Nipawin, he stopped in front of rookie Logan Hunter’s stall. As Hunter was loading his hockey bag, Camrud asked Hunter if he was going to score a goal that night. “He said, ‘I’m scoring two,’ ” Camrud recalled. “And I said, ‘That’s what I like to hear.’ Logan was phenomenal. He had an amazing shot, he had a super bright future ahead of him. He was going to be playing Division I hockey someday.”

Two years ago today, Brayden Camrud opened his eyes and took his earbuds out. As the Broncos team bus was approaching the intersection of Highway 335 for the final stretch into Nipawin, it was time to tuck the shirts in, straighten the ties and make themselves presentable. It was almost showtime. Teammate Evan Thomas was running his fingers through his hair, then he gave Camrud a wink. Then, in that blink of an eye, everything changed. When Camrud came to on the frozen ground, chaos surrounded him. So did teammates who had died in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, kids who just moments prior to that were just like him, chasing their hockey dreams.

Two years ago today, Brayden Camrud was flying to a hospital in Saskatoon with his father by his side in an air ambulance. The first thing he asked about the condition of Broncos coach Darcy Haugen. “I said, ‘Son, I’m not quite sure, I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s very good,’ ” said Curtis Camrud. “ ‘I don’t think he made it, but you need to relax. And he said, ‘If he didn’t make it, what about those two little boys? They’re going to grow up in this world without a father, Dad.’ And it broke him.”

It’s late February and Brayden Camrud is in an arena in Tempe, Ariz., of all places. He came early to chat before practice with the University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves. Camrud is a freshman with the Seawolves and this weekend, they’re preparing to play a weekend series against Arizona State. Camrud’s great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and two brothers are in town for the game, which represents a welcomed respite from the February chill in Alaska and Saskatchewan. Camrud looks good. Really good. He has that perpetual sleepy look of a kid who’s trying to juggle elite athletics and school. The glasses give him a scholarly air. It’s hard to tell whether the messy hair is deliberate or a casualty of a lack of attention. And he’s bigger and stronger, much bigger and stronger than he was when he left Humboldt after last season. He cuts an impressive figure in his Seawolves golf shirt and khaki pants.

The Arizona State games would be the last two games he would play this season. Camrud would sit out the Seawolves final four regular-season games and their two playoff losses. It has been a long, difficult season for Brayden Camrud, for a whole host of reasons. The Seawolves went 4-25-7 this season and of those 36 games, Camrud missed 15 of them. He finished the season with three goals and five assists. It was a 42-hour drive to Anchorage from Saskatoon and Camrud missed his family, his support system, desperately. “He’s struggling a little bit,” Curtis said. Curtis is just looking forward to getting his son back home this summer to heal his body, his brain and his mental health. He thinks the night of the bus crash that killed 10 of his son’s teammates and six others in the organization, his family had a guardian angel watching over it. Because without his son, Curtis has no idea how his family would have held together, the way the 16 other families have in the two years since the accident. “We are very, very lucky because without him we’d be in deep trouble,” Curtis said. “Our family would be in deep trouble. We wouldn’t know what to do. We’d be lost without him.”

From the time Brayden Camrud hit the ice for his last season with the Broncos in 2019-20, he did so with a sense of purpose. He was intent on playing for the memories of those who no longer had that privilege. They had hockey dreams and dreams that went beyond the game. He might have been the luckiest person on the bus that day and is one of only a handful who are still playing, the only one playing at a level as high as Division I. “For a lot of the guys who aren’t here, this was the path they wanted to pursue,” Camrud said. “I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job of living my best life and living it through them.” But carrying around the hopes and dreams of so many people can be a heavy burden to bear sometimes it weighs heavily on him. When the Broncos lost the first game of the season in 2018-19, Camrud said he felt as though he had let everyone down. It’s difficult, particularly when the lingering effects of the concussion he received in the crash come back to bother him. “A couple of weeks ago he had a real tough week,” Curtis Camrud said between periods of the first game against Arizona State in February. “He phoned and said, ‘I don’t know how or why, but I started breaking down in math class.’ The hard part for him is he’s playing so far away in Anchorage and his coaches aren’t – and you don’t expect them to – they’re not going to pat his bum.”

The Seawolves have a promising sophomore group that endured a lot of growing pains this season. They’re hopeful times will get better. The Seawolves and Camrud decided to shut things down after the Arizona State games because he was playing through injuries and they both thought it would be best if he healed and came back stronger next season. Camrud was brought to Alaska to be a skilled playmaker who could skate and shoot well and bring energy to the lineup, “and he did all of those things,” said Seawolves coach Matt Curley. “Overall, we were thrilled with his performance and we fully expect him to be a big part of what’s going on here and in the future.” But that future is uncertain. Camrud will take stock of his game and his frame of mind over the summer and make a decision on his future.

In a year that has been full of ups and downs, there have been some wonderful moments. One of them came in the first series of the season when the Seawolves travelled to Maine. They were blown out 7-1 in the first game, but came back the next night and lost 2-1 in overtime. A young girl, whose parents have been season-ticket holders for 12 years, was wearing a Humboldt Strong T-shirt. Camrud gave her the thumbs up and sought her out after the game to give her his stick and an autograph. The girl and her parents had a tearful moment with Camrud and they embraced. “I know that if I leave this Earth tomorrow,” Curtis Camrud said, “I’ll know I’ve done a pretty good job raising a good young man.”

The background on Brayden Camrud’s cellphone is a picture of the Broncos celebrating a goal in their first-round series against Melfort, just weeks before the accident. In the photo, Camrud is embracing with Conner Lukan, Broncos captain Logan Schatz and Bryce Fiske. Half of the players in that celebration, Lukan and Schatz, died in the crash. The goal came on a 4-on-3 and Camrud hit Lukan for a back-door pass, which Lukan tapped in. Camrud always smiles at that picture because when they came together to tap helmets together after the goal, Camrud butted his head in early and hit Schatz in the mouth, chipping his front tooth. “We come out of the huddle and all of a sudden, I hear, “F---! Camo, what the f---! You hit me in the mouth, you (expletive)!’ ” Camrud said. “It reminds me of why I’m in Alaska, why I continue to play hockey and why I’ve got to push myself to be the best person and player I can be.’ ”

The novel coronavirus forced Camrud to return home early. Under normal circumstances, he probably would have still been in school, likely writing his final Business Management exams. But he’ll be with family for the second anniversary, which is probably for the best for him. “I get to think about how super thankful for where I am, talk to my family and tell them how much I love them,” Camrud said. “How fortunate and blessed I am to be alive. And if anybody needs to have a conversation, if they need me to just listen, if they want to just sit on the phone and neither of us talk…just to make sure that we’re doing OK.”

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