Humboldt celebrated the return of the Broncos Wednesday night to mark a new chapter in the community’s history
Dane Dow emerged behind a blast of smoke to the roar of the crowd. The goalie, wearing number 1, skated a few strides before lifting his stick in acknowledgement of the sell-out crowd at the Elgar Peterson arena.
With lights dimmed, Mitchell Girolami emerged from the tunnel. And then Reagan Poncelet.
And then Dawson Cochrane. Luke Spadafora. Riker Franczak. Josh Patrician. Player after player to raucous cheers and a standing ovation.
The cheers somehow got louder as Derek Patter took the ice for the second-last player introduction. Finally, Brayden Camrud, who touched his hand to his heart and raised it to the rafters in honour of his 16 teammates and friends who would not be there in to see him play that night.
The 2018-19 Humboldt Broncos had taken the ice.
They lined up along the far blueline. After an emotional offseason, they were there to play hockey.
The anthem was sung. Like any other time, the players filed to their benches.
The referee dropped the puck.
Five months after a horrific crash killed 16 of their teammates, players, coaches and support staff, and injured 13 more, the Humboldt Broncos were back.
Wednesday, Sept. 12 was a day the organization long had circled on its calendar. It would be the day to start a new chapter in Broncos history. A time to come together, to celebrate and to mourn.
“We have all last year’s families, and the current team’s families, and the community,” said team president Jamie Brockman.
A ceremony would be held to honour the crash victims. But first, there was a hockey game to play.
“We’re back on the ice with a team, which is phenomenal and unbelievable considering the past few months.”
Brockman only joined the team about a month ago, in late August, after former president Kevin Garinger stepped down. He described the past few weeks as a “whirlwind” as he and the board prepared for this game, for this opportunity to honour everyone impacted by the tragedy only a few months ago.
“We’ve circled tonight as our line in the sand where we have to start focusing on the organization and this season,” Brockman said.
“Hockey is back in Humboldt. The Humboldt Broncos are back.”
Despite the added distractions of a national media spotlight, of a game being televised on TSN and of all the emotions that come with the first game back after the events of April 6, head coach Nathan Oystrick said the team would be ready, come puck drop.
Perhaps through focus, perhaps through emotion, or perhaps through feeding off the crowd, the Broncos were ready. They jumped out to an early shot advantage, leading their opponents 6-1.
It was time to play hockey, and the boys had come to play.
“I thought we played a pretty good game,” Oystrick said.
“Once the puck dropped, the guys knew what they had to do. They put their noses down and started working.”
The Broncos did jump out to a 1-0 lead on a goal from newcomer Michael Clarke on a pass in front of the net.
The crowd erupted, and the team celebrated with a leaping hug in the slot.
But the lead wasn’t to be.
Nipawin would find the back of the net on a delayed penalty, and again on a bad bounce that went off the nub of goalie Dane Dow’s stick.
Final score, Nipawin 2, Humboldt 1. Dow made 24 saves. His opponent, Declan Hobbs, stopped 39.
While it may not have been the case on the scoreboard, the first regular season game for the Humboldt Broncos was, for the community, a win.
“A great win,” said Humboldt’s former mayor Malcolm Eaton
“I think the community needs to move forward. The Broncos need to move forward. The families need to move forward. Today, to me was a little bit of the end of one part and the beginning of another.”
That theme, of hockey as a way to heal, and to move forward, was present throughout the day. Former players, parents and team staff reiterated that from here on in, the team moves forward.
Mark Dahlgren said he kept seeing the phrase hockey heals.
“It really does,” said Dahlgren, whose son Kaleb survived the April crash.
“It’s new normal, but you have to move on. Healing is moving on. Healing is not staying where you are today, it’s moving forward. I’m so happy the organization was able to put together a team and continue the tradition of bronco hockey. That means a lot to us and our family.”
According to Mark, the part of the evening Kaleb was most looking forward to was the game itself.
“It means everything for this team to get back to playing hockey again,” Kaleb said.
“I know I’d want the team to continue with the whole season and honour the 29 that were involved in the accident.”
Though playing this game won’t heal all, Kaleb said, it’s a good start.
“Playing tonight helps heal the wounds, but it won’t heal everything. There is still lots that needs to be done, but this will definitely help in the process.
“I think this is just a step in the positive direction. I think this is a new chapter and a new beginning.”
Oystrick was asked if that new beginning is a return to normal.
He said he wasn’t sure what normal was, but he knew what the team had to do.
“We’re going to continue to come to the rink every morning and compete and work. That’s what we have to do every morning and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
Victims honoured in tearful ceremony
Once the hockey was all done, it was time to remember the Broncos of 2017-18.
One by one, a banner with the names of each of the victims was unveiled around centre ice, while a photo montage played on the new video screen.
Each of the 16 banners featured a name, year of birth and death, number or title.
Tears were shed, with audible sobs echoing across the otherwise silent rink.
Then, the team turned to the survivors. Thirteen more banners. Again, with name and number. But instead of years, the bottom of the banners simply said “Believe.”
First responders from local police, fire and ambulance services unrolled the banners and stood silently by their side.
A parent, Scott Thomas, whose son Evan Thomas was among the 16 killed, spoke to thank everyone who offered the team support.
Amazing Grace was sung.
Just about everyone cried.
And just about everyone left, in silence, in memory of the Humboldt Broncos of 2017-18.