On a typical Tuesday night playoff game, the Delisle Chiefs would draw two, maybe three hundred fans. This week, 625 spectators came to Delisle’s small-town rink to watch playoff hockey.
The Chiefs and the Regina Capitals are in a best-of-seven series for the President’s Cup, the top prize in the Prairie Junior Hockey League. They play Junior B hockey, a tier down from the Humboldt Broncos’ league. But the Broncos and the Chiefs have tight ties: Two of the Chiefs’ players are former Broncos and another pair play for both teams thanks to a borrowing system. Another played his minor hockey years in Humboldt.
And so now, support for the Chiefs means support for the Broncos, a team devastated after a semi-truck collided with their bus. The crash killed 15 people – mostly players – and injured another 14 passengers. On Tuesday, inside the Delisle Centennial Arena, young men and teenagers tried to play hockey like they meant it.
“At the start of the game, it was tough, you know,” Josh Roberts said in the lobby afterward. He played the two previous seasons for the Humboldt Broncos and knows about half the team. Some of his best pals were on the bus. He didn’t know if he should play Tuesday night.
“Having that moment of silence and just thinking to yourself: ‘How am I going to play a hockey game right now?’
“But I don’t know, once we got into the rhythms and the game, you just find that passion for it again. And you just think of the guys that you were with last year and the year before and you just know you have to do it for them and that’s what they would have wanted.
“Playing hockey - this is a good way to heal,” Mr. Roberts said.
Mr. Roberts wore his Broncos jersey during the warm-up skate. Tyler Leier, an assistant captain for the Chiefs, did the same. He is from Humboldt and and previously played with the Broncos as an “affiliated player,” meaning his hometown team could call him up if he was available. Blake Berschiminsky and Reagan Poncelet, two rookies from Humboldt who are currently affiliated with the Broncos, followed suit. Mr. Poncelet wore his green Broncos hockey gloves and helmet the entire game, rather than swapping them out for the Chiefs’ colours. These four players, along with Dayden Dvernichuk, who played minor hockey in Humboldt, made up the Chiefs’ starting lineup Tuesday night.
The Humboldt Broncos are part of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL), which suspended its playoff schedule after the April 6 bus crash. The Broncos were travelling to play the Nipawin Hawks. The SJHL’s governors on Wednesday will consider what to do with the remainder of the season. Nipawin practised Tuesday and will do so again Wednesday.
The Prairie Junior Hockey League – home to the Delisle Chiefs and the Regina Capitals – halted its playoffs because of the crash, too. Tuesday’s game marked the first time teams returned to play. Delisle, which is home to about 1,000 people, is about 300 kilometres northwest of Regina.
After warming up and huddling around their respective goalies, players for the Chiefs and the Caps assembled on their respective blue lines for the anthem. They placed their sticks and helmets on the ice and draped their arms over each other’s shoulders for O Canada.
The Chiefs lost 7-2. The teams lingered on the ice after the game ended. Players from both squads raised their sticks in salute; the fans applauded in return. Fans stood in the bleachers and watched players and coaches shake hands, hold each other and cry. The opposing teams took a group picture.
Chiefs captain Anthony Radke was happy to be on the ice again.
“Everyone is torn up right now. It was more than hockey today. It was about showing support for Humboldt and the guys on our team,” he said after the game. “No one really knows how to act, how to feel.
“And there’s not a really right or wrong way to feel about this. But we’re just trying to stick together as a team and do whatever we can to help each other.”
Kelsea Schmidt is in her second year of university and lives in Saskatoon, which is about 40 kilometres east of Delisle and 100 kilometres east of Humboldt.
“It is really heartwarming to see everyone come out and play for the team - play for the Broncos,” she said. She came to support someone on the Chiefs’ roster. “I’ve never come out to Delisle to watch a game [before].”
Barry Roberts, who is Josh Roberts’ dad, found comfort in being back inside a Prairie arena. “It was warm. Lots of hugs. Lots of good conversation. Lots of friends. It was good.”
The Chiefs are down three games to one in their series against the Capitals.