The first funeral, for Tyler Bieber, the team announcer, was held on Thursday in the arena where the Humboldt Broncos play. Jacob Leicht, one of the team’s hometown players, was next on Friday. Brody Hinz, another Humboldt teenager, will be buried on Saturday. Followed by the coach, Darcy Haugan, later in the afternoon. There will be a dozen more.
There is confusion, shock and sadness on people’s faces, and so many tears.
There is no normal, and after the bus crash of April 6, there won’t be for a long time. Along with the 16 who died, there were 13 injured, three critically.
When something tragic occurs in big cities, life carries on quickly. In small-town Saskatchewan, it is a different story altogether.
“We are still taking care of our families and there is still a lot of pain,” says Kevin Garinger, the Broncos’ owner and the education director for the local school district. “When you look at the future, it’s a long road ahead and there is a lot ahead.
“We still have multiple funerals. We are really not at a place where we can start to do much healing right now.”
Healing evolves from anguish and starts with small steps.
In Humboldt, Sask., it can be seen in residents leaving hockey sticks and skates out on the porch for deceased players. It can be seen in the $19,000 in donations collected at the A&W on Wednesday. Meals were free, but customers were asked to give what they could to the Broncos organization. The amount raised was five times more than the restaurant takes in during an average day.
It can be found in volunteers offering to cut and deliver flowers for the Humboldt Florist. And in the basement at the Pioneer Hotel, where middle-aged crafters are producing “Humboldt Strong” decals that sell for $5 apiece. What started as a simple Facebook fundraising venture has turned into an enormous undertaking. Orders are pouring in from all over North America, some for 300 stickers each.
There is a helplessness that occurs when tragedy strikes. It generates a need in people to do something, anything, to help.
The collision between the Broncos’ motor coach and a semi-tractor trailer claimed the lives of 10 hockey players between 16 and 21 years old, along with two coaches, the athletic therapist, a broadcaster, bus driver and the team statistician, a high-school student on a job-shadowing assignment.
The Junior A level team was on its way to play the Nipawin Hawks when the accident occurred at the intersection of Highways 35 and 335 near Tisdale, Sask.
Scene of fatal
THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: rcmp; google maps
Scene of fatal
JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: rcmp; google maps
JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: rcmp; google maps
Photos showed the bus lying on its side with much of the front half missing and the roof torn off. Hockey bags and other belongings were scattered around. A DVD of the movie Slap Shot was on the frozen ground, cracked in two.
Two days earlier, in the fourth game of their Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoff series, the Hawks rallied to beat the Broncos in triple overtime on their home ice. The game took so long that it spanned two days. The opening faceoff was at 7:30 p.m.; the winning goal wasn’t scored until midnight.
“We walked out of here disappointed,” says Rob Muench, the Humboldt mayor, sitting in his regular seat behind the home team’s net in an empty arena. “I was angry as I was walking up the steps, not at the players, but at the game itself.”
Over the years, the Broncos have drawn crowds so large that it has alarmed fire marshals. The players are heroes in Humboldt. They billet, or live, in residents’ homes and play ministicks and street hockey with their kids. They shovel driveways after snowstorms and share the arena with 18 youth teams. There is a closeness and a familiarity that goes way beyond anything in pro hockey.
“I usually keep my emotions under control, but I am finding this tough,” Harold Theissing says. He has attended Broncos games since their inaugural season in 1970. “That Wednesday night, you would have never thought it would be the last time you would see them.”
A repeating nightmare
Randy and Peggy O’Neil-Arseneau were on vacation in South Carolina when the Saskatchewan crash happened. More than others, they can relate to the shock, pain, anger and depression in Humboldt.
Their son Bradd was a member of the Bathurst High School basketball team that lost seven players in a January, 2008, accident in northern New Brunswick.
Bradd survived, but his closest friends didn’t. Their house had been the boys’ favourite gathering spot. Mrs. O’Neil-Arseneau had some of them in her French class.
Until April 6, it was the worst accident to befall a Canadian sports team. The team was on its way back from a road game when their 15-passenger van slid on an icy highway into the path of an oncoming semi-tractor trailer.
“Ours was big and it was a nightmare,” Mrs. O’Neil-Arseneau says. “This one in Humboldt is another degree of magnitude. We have heavy hearts like the rest of the country.”
The past decade has been difficult for everyone in Bathurst.
“It feels a little better with time, but you never forget,” says Stephen Brunet, the city’s mayor.
Initially, the Arseneaus cried on a daily basis, then it became every other day. At times, they are still sad. Mr. Arseneau cried when he saw a picture of three Humboldt players holding hands in the hospital. His son and one of his teammates held hands 10 years ago as they lay in the darkness, teammates dead or dying near them.
“There is a wave of ups and downs, and times where you move sideways and backwards,” Mrs. O’Neil-Arseneau says. “You have to take one baby step at a time.
“When you are trying to heal, you try to parcel and pack things away, and sometimes you can’t do it. It is like a wound that heals over, and then reopens again.”
She allowed herself to be vulnerable and cried with her students. Years later, she found joy in reading them Christmas stories some of the Bathurst victims had written for her as part of a class project. When memories weighed too heavily, the family would escape to a cabin on the Cains River in the Southwest Miramichi. There is solitude there and Atlantic salmon that rise to a well-presented fly.
“As time goes on, you find a little peace and become a little less vulnerable,” Mrs. O’Neil-Arseneau says. “You develop a new normal. Little by little, joys find their way back into your life.”
Her spirits were lifted by small acts of kindness.
“To me, it is love and time that gets you through,” Mrs. O’Neil-Arseneau says.
She is planning a trip to Humboldt in June. Her nephew, Neil Landry, is marrying a local woman. Mr. Landry once played for the Humboldt Broncos.
“I know in June things will be raw, and people will be healing,” Mrs. O’Neil-Arseneau says. “While I am there, I would love to sit down and chat with people and help in any way I can.
“When you are in a tunnel of darkness, you think you will never see the light. Eventually, you do.”
Stories of survival
Sheldon Kennedy survived a bus crash in 1986 that killed four of his teammates on the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League. He went on to play eight seasons in the NHL with the Red Wings, Flames and Bruins.
Last weekend, he visited accident victims at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon and counselled grieving parents. The injured players are being kept in close proximity to one another, where possible, so that they can see one another and talk.
“We never hear enough about people living in good recovery,” Mr. Kennedy says. “That was one of the biggest questions parents had. They wanted to know how you get through it.
“I told them, for what they have gone through, those feelings are normal. From what I know about recovering from trauma, acceptance is critical. You have to learn to live with the events that have created this new path for your life.”
Some parents felt guilty that their child had survived when so many hadn’t.
“They were whispering,” Mr. Kennedy said. “They were afraid to celebrate that their son was alive.”
On Sunday, Ron MacLean and Don Cherry came to Humboldt to attend a prayer service for the team. The Hockey Night in Canada broadcasters stopped at the hospital along the way. In the hours after the accident, the emergency room had looked like a war zone.
“I was unable to shake the idea of the first responders and tried to visualize what the ER was like,” Mr. MacLean says. “I know how hard it must have been. Saving even one child’s life would have required so much effort.”
His father was a dispatcher with the RCMP in Red Deer, Alta., for 10 years, but he never spoke much about it. Later, a fellow Mountie told Mr. MacLean that his father had responded once to an accident where six lives were lost.
“My heart goes out to the families and players, almost in lockstep with the staff of the ER,” he says.
He doesn’t doubt Humboldt can recover.
“Our capacity for regeneration is undeniable,” he says. “People will be happy again, but it is not easily done. It is going to require that everybody asks for help, and don’t ask why this happened. That is where we all get stuck.”
In the hours after the crash, Dr. James Stempien, the department head of emergency medicine at the Royal University Hospital, put a call out for extra staff and called in canines as well.
Three years ago, the medical centre became the first in Canada to regularly deploy St. John Ambulance therapy dogs in the emergency room. The specially trained animals are proven to relieve stress, lower patients’ blood pressure and decrease pain levels.
Dr. Stempien says the dogs played a critical role on the night of April 6 and the days that followed, cuddling up to the injured and the heartbroken in the emergency and intensive-care units.
“I have seen some amazing things,” says Lisa Collard, the director of emergency. “The dogs are instantly surrounded. “They bring a little light in a dark and horrible situation. You can see a difference in the room.”
Colleen Anne Dell, a PhD and research chair in health and wellness at the University of Saskatchewan, brought her boxer, Subie, to the arena in Humboldt several times this week. They were mobbed after the prayer service for the Broncos on Sunday night and attracted attention from disconsolate high-school students who came to visit a memorial set up at one end of the rink this week.
“The dogs connect to people in a way I can’t,” Ms. Dell says. “There is no way I could ever greet someone in the same way, with the same happiness and authenticity.
“It is a momentary meeting, but it has impact that stays.”
Daigon Elmy, whose friends are in the hospital with injuries suffered in the crash, stopped to pet Subie and laughed as the dog tried to climb into his lap.
“They have played a huge role at the hospital,” says Mr. Elmy, an 18-year-old who played last year for the Humboldt Broncos Midget AA team. “I’ll be sitting there feeling numb, and when I see one of the dogs, I sit on the floor and hope they come over to me.
“They say they are man’s best friend, and it has never been truer than this week.”
Jane Smith and her six-year-old wagging English springer spaniel, Murphy, have been on hand in the emergency room and critical care unit throughout the week. They were the first team the hospital employed three years ago.
“I say I am bond-making,” Ms. Smith says. “I want people touching the dog as soon as possible. That’s when the magic begins.”
It is not only the hockey players whose injuries need healing but Humboldt’s collective spirit, as well. The municipality has engaged Kevin Cameron and the Canadian Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response to help develop a strategy. Mr. Cameron, an Alberta-based expert in traumatic stress, was called in by officials at Columbine High School in Colorado after the shooting rampage in 1999 and also served as a consultant to Bathurst High.
All over Humboldt this week, residents have placed hockey sticks outside their home. It is something small but meaningful to them.
Ken Klassen, whose brother played in the NHL and whose son played for the Broncos, propped two of his old wooden sticks against his garage door. He also hung his 47-year-old battle-worn helmet there.
“I’m not afraid anyone will try to steal it,” Mr. Klassen said.
Next door, Ross Ruedig suspended a stick that he used in the Long Lake Senior Hockey League in 1976 from his garage door. He attached an old pair of gloves to it, making it look to passersby like someone is gripping the stick.
“It helps you feel you are doing something,” Mr. Ruedig says. “The nice thing is that you don’t have to buy anything. Everyone has a hockey stick.”
The phone hasn’t stopped ringing at the Humboldt Florist this week. Businesses have been asking for arrangements in the Broncos’ team colours, yellow and green. Orders have been placed by NHL clubs, and NFL and CFL teams. Someone in Australia requested a bouquet be delivered to the arena.
“He didn’t know anybody here, but felt bad about what had happened,” says Ruth Brinkman, an employee at the flower shop.
Volunteers have been showing up wanting to help however they can.
“When tragedy strikes, we go to each other’s houses with cabbage rolls and perogies,” she says. “That’s what small-town Saskatchewan is like.”
In the basement at the Pioneer Hotel, Loriann Wuchner and other volunteers are fashioning Broncos decals out of rolls of vinyl donated by local businesses.
“Everybody is doing something,” she says. “Everybody is affected. I’m not a hockey fan, but I am a fan of the community.”
A funeral was held in Humboldt on Friday morning for Jacob Leicht, an undersized winger and fan favourite. Later, another was held in Montmartre, Sask., for Adam Herold, who at 16 was the youngest on the team. On Friday afternoon, the bus driver, Glen Doerksen, was remembered during a service in the community hall in Carrot River.
The Elgar Petersen Arena was full and people without a seat lined up in rows three-deep for a celebration of Mr. Leicht’s life. A simple wooden cross rested atop his casket, with a hockey picture to one side and buckets of sticks to the other.
Vases of flowers, many in team colours, were set up on the ice’s surface, and two rows of bouquets rimmed the circle at centre ice in which a Broncos logo is painted.
Born on Valentine’s Day, Mr. Leicht was 19 and his parents’ first child. In the lobby, there was a picture of him as a young boy, beaming as an ample pike dangled at the end of his fishing line. His handprint as a baby, preserved in plaster, was there for all to see.
Eulogized by Shaun Gardner, Mr. Leicht was remembered as a mischievous young man who excelled at everything but cleaning. He attended a Bible camp as a kid and didn’t shower for the entire week.
Prayers were said for him and the others who died, those still recovering and for the emergency workers who responded to the accident. A soloist sang a beautiful rendition of How Great Thou Art. By the time she finished, eyes were being dabbed and some children were holding a parent’s hand.
The Broncos will field a team in the fall, but at this point it is too early to tell exactly what it will look like. The league may hold a special draft to help them be competitive.
The Nipawin Hawks will begin a series against the the Estevan Bruins on Saturday night to determine the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League championship.
The Hawks held a 3-1 advantage in their seven-game series against the Broncos when the crash happened. In the last two years, they played one another 20 times. Friendships formed between rival players.
For Nipawin, the season continues. The Hawks say they are trying to win, not just for themselves, but also the Broncos.