They will wear a commemorative patch on their jerseys and a special decal on their helmets, all for the Humboldt Broncos. But the head coach of the Nipawin Hawks always believed the most meaningful way to pay tribute to their shattered rival would come from getting back on the ice and playing.
Playing for the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Canalta Cup, for the families and friends in mourning and for a province shaken to its soul. As the Hawks’ Doug Johnson saw it, there was a need for normalcy that included lining up for Game 1 of the Nipawin-Estevan Bruins championship final.
“We honour the players by going to their services, but we have to honour them in another way by making sure whoever comes out of Saskatchewan goes as far as possible,” Johnson said, acknowledging that there is still the ANAVET Cup, which awaits the eventual SJHL winner, and the RBC Cup, which is the national Junior A championship. “[We have] to keep this season and the Humboldt Broncos alive in some way.”
In the aftermath of the Humboldt bus crash that claimed 16 lives, the bulk of them players who were on their way to Nipawin for Game 5 of their playoff series, shock has given way to anguish. Talking about playing hockey again seemed premature, even disrespectful for some. They felt it was too soon; the first Bronco has yet to have his memorial service.
But on Wednesday, the president and governors of the SJHL held a conference call to discuss what should be done. The decision was unanimous: The Nipawin-Estevan best-of-seven series will be played, starting in Nipawin and likely on Saturday.
Hawks president Darren Opp confirmed the unanimous vote and added the series would begin after Friday. “Out of total respect for Humboldt, we are not going to play Friday.” The Broncos’ accident occurred last Friday.
The call to wear a special patch and helmet decal – it says Our Thoughts Our Prayers – was made by Estevan head coach Chris Lewgood. He and Johnson have both had their teams back on the ice, practising for a series they feel is necessary and therapeutic.
“The [Nipawin] players needed some time to see their families and give their parents, brothers, sisters and friends hugs. We understood that,” Johnson said. “Both us and Estevan, we’re ready to go. We were at the point where we wanted to phone the refs and get going with or without league approval.”
That desire for getting things back to as normal as possible was evident on Tuesday night as 625 spectators filled Delisle’s Centennial Arena to watch the Chiefs play the Regina Capitals in the Prairie Junior Hockey League final. It’s a Junior B circuit, a notch below the SJHL, but there are ties to the Broncos. Four Chiefs had spent time playing for Humboldt. Another Chief played his minor hockey there.
Josh Roberts did two seasons with Humboldt. Some of his best friends were on the bus when it collided with a semi-trailer last Friday. He didn’t know if he should play on Tuesday night.
“At the start of the game, it was tough,” Roberts said after the Chiefs’ 7-2 loss. “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,” Roberts insisted.
Geoff Grimwood, head coach and GM of the Kindersley Klippers, had to track down his players to ensure they knew what had happened with the Humboldt team. The Klippers were beaten by Estevan in their playoff series less than two weeks ago and had left for home. On the night of the accident, Grimwood got in his car and drove to Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital, where many of the Humboldt players were brought in for emergency treatment.
Grimwood met with the parents of Logan Boulet. The 21-year-old defenceman from Lethbridge had recently signed his organ-donor’s card and was kept on life support until matches could be found. His act of unselfishness could save the lives of six people. Two years ago, Boulet joined Humboldt. Grimwood traded him there.
“We ended up trading him to a much better situation for Logan and he really thrived,” Grimwood said. Still, he admits that having moved Boulet to Humboldt was “putting a large weight on my shoulders.”
“For me it’s been somewhat of a surreal experience in the sense that it’s very tragic, and yet the number of people reaching out is uplifting,” Grimwood said.
“I’ve had both sides of the argument [to play or not to play] within my own thoughts. I think it comes down to the Saskatchewan way, which is, ‘We’re going to move on and we’re going to play.’ ”