HUMBOLDT, SASK.—After grappling with tragedy for five long months, Humboldt seems a little bit tired.
People here were heartbroken when a bus carrying the city’s junior hockey team collided with a semi truck, leading to the deaths of 16 people. But in the days and weeks that followed, they were open to sharing their grief.
Now, as the Humboldt Broncos ready themselves for their first regular-season game since the crash, residents of this small, central Saskatchewan city are more reluctant to talk.
“It’s a painful step,” pastor Sean Brandow reflected Tuesday afternoon at the humble, brown-stucco building his congregation uses on the north side of Humboldt.
Dressed in a black Broncos windbreaker and Hockey Canada ball cap, Brandow wears his emotional fatigue on his face. Several of his 80-plus congregants have connections to the Broncos, including players and billets affected by the crash.
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“You have to move forward,” he said. “But (the game) can be quite painful for a lot of people. It brings up painful memories for people involved with the team.”
The city is still processing what that loss means and how Wednesday night’s game against the visiting Nipawin Hawks fits into that process.
The Hawks and Broncos were in the middle of a playoff series when the crash happened, with the Broncos bus making a two-hour-trek north to Nipawin for Game 5 of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League semifinal on April 6.
Residents across the city reacted to the tragedy by making their own memorials with hockey sticks on their front porches. City hall has painted a large, yellow-and-green Humboldt Strong mural on the walkway leading to its front doors. But by this point, the Prayers for Humboldt and #BroncosStrong signs that adorn shop windows are sun-faded and worn.
With a rebuilt team and two surviving players able to put on the blades for the 2018-19 season, the city seems eager to move on.
“It’s more tension we’ve felt here than ever before,” said Mike, a Main St. sporting goods store owner who didn’t want to give his last name.
Since the crash, he said, the steady stream of reporters has taken an emotional toll.
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“We understand it: You guys have a job to do. But it’s hard,” he said, suggesting he might feel up to speaking in the coming days.
Wednesday’s game is set to be a turning point for much of the community. Former Humboldt head coach Dean Brockman is upbeat, seeing the rink as a place for people to come together and heal.
“That’s the part of the hockey religion, if you want to call it that. Clear across the country, it’s where coffee is drank and friendship begins,” he said.
Now a head coach in the Western Hockey League, Brockman spent 17 seasons on the Humboldt bench, either as an assistant or a head coach; he last coached the Broncos for their 2013-14 season.
“When an accident occurs like that, it just enlightens all those things we’ve either taken for granted or that comes by naturally,” he said.
The Broncos-Hawks game, he hopes, will help serve as “a reminder of really what the game can do for every community and every rink, really. It brings the community closer together.”
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Surviving Broncos forward Brayden Camrud is shouldering some of that responsibility among his team members.
The centreman from nearby Saskatoon is one of three players new head coach Nathan Oystrick chose as assistant captains. Oystrick said the team opted go with three, maybe four, assistants and no captain to honour the memory of their late on-ice leader Logan Schatz.
“I think this community has realized how much this team means to them; and from a player’s perspective, we realize how much we mean to this community,” Camrud said.
Considering his age, just 20 years old, and the trauma of what he experienced in April, Camrud was patient and thoughtful while speaking with a throng of reporters scrumming with him. And he wasn’t afraid to pause, teary-eyed, to reflect on some of the players no longer with the Broncos.
“I cherish every single memory that I’ve ever made with the guys from last year,” he said. “I’m so thankful and happy to have known them and played with them.”
Camrud is using his gratitude as motivation for this new crop of Broncos players.
“I kind of owe it to these guys to step up and be a leader.”
Evan Radford is a reporter/photographer for StarMetro Calgary. Follow him on Twitter: @EvanRadford