After he’d recovered from the accident, Matthieu Gomercic wrestled with what to do next.
It was June. Only a few months had passed since the bus that carried him and his Humboldt Broncos teammates was broadsided by a tractor-trailer as they travelled to a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoff game. Sixteen players and staff were killed. Thirteen more were injured.
He’d already been back skating for a month, and as his separated shoulder healed (he also had sustained a concussion) he eyed a return to hockey in the fall, in time for the coming season.
The question was, where would he play? At 21, he was too old to go back to junior. He’d looked at a few NCAA schools south of the border. He was in talks with the University of Manitoba.
Going there would’ve been easiest. He’d be close to his parents, Rob and Joanne, and the familiar surroundings of his hometown of Winnipeg.
He was also considering an offer from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa. The coach of the men’s hockey program there really wanted him. Gomercic, a lanky centreman coming off a four-year junior career, came highly recommended as a player with a ton of untapped potential. He’d be joining a nascent program on an upswing.
But playing more than 2,000 kilometres away would mean leaving home again, and he wasn’t sure how he’d cope with being away from his family. He was still coming to terms with what he’d lived through in the spring.
The decision he needed to make came into focus one weekend on a trip he’d taken with his girlfriend, Jessica, to her remote cabin. Being off the grid for the first time since the crash made him anxious.
“The first day I’d get to the cabin, I’d think. ‘I can’t do this,’” Gomercic says. "No cell service, can’t call [my parents]. I haven’t talked to them about it, so I don’t know how they were feeling those two days, but for me it was tough.”
Still, he got through it.
Looking back on it now, Gomercic says that difficult weekend in the woods was a turning point. It made the “transition a little easier” when, in late summer, he packed up and headed for Oshawa to study kinesiology and join the UOIT Ridgebacks, a men’s hockey team in the Ontario University Athletics conference, for the 2018-19 season.
It didn’t hurt that Bryce Fiske, a former Broncos teammate, had committed to the team a month earlier.
“Having Bryce here, that was a big part of it,” Gomercic says.
The bond is strong, if understated
Bryce Fiske calls out to a photographer who’s been following him around for an hour to take his picture. Fiske, watching his team from the stands on this afternoon, greets him warmly, as though they are old buddies. (They’ve only just met.)
“Carlos! Carlos!” he calls out.
He wonders aloud, dressed in a neat grey suit, if this is a photo shoot for GQ magazine.
“Bryce is a little more outgoing, a joker, a loose nature in the room,” says Ridgebacks head coach Curtis Hodgins, who recruited Gomercic and Fiske.
On the ice, he’s something different. Known as a hard-nosed defenceman with the stats to back it up (he amassed almost 400 penalty minutes in 216 games over four seasons of Junior A), Fiske has only one reservation about playing hockey at the university level: its ban on fighting.
“It’s a physical game out here, and I like that,” he says. “But there’s a lot more cheap shots, and you’re not gonna fight. You’ve only got 28 games, and you don’t need a two-game suspension.”
He comes by his mean streak honestly. In a 2012 New York Times article examining the prominence of fighting in Saskatchewan junior hockey, both Fiske and his father, Kelly, are vocal proponents of the fisticuffs.
Even at 14, Fiske wasn’t shy to drop the gloves. “It doesn’t really scare me,” he said, still a bantam-aged player at the time.
If Gomercic speaks openly about his experience since the Humboldt bus crash, Fiske, 21, would rather talk hockey.
So when he does address Humboldt, the tough guy you’d see guarding the crease begins to emerge. He does not reveal much about the injuries he suffered in the crash. He says he broke his jaw and shoulder blade, but concedes “pretty much everything was messed up.”
He’s more at ease talking about the people – his former Broncos billets; his parents, Kelly and Tracy; and his old teammates, with whom he remains in almost constant contact via an iMessage chat thread.
The bond is strong, if understated. Perhaps the words that best describe his connection to Humboldt don’t even belong to him, though he reads them every day. They’re tattooed across his rib cage, in homage to his late Broncos coach, Darcy Haugan: “It’s a good day to be a Bronco, gentlemen.”
While Fiske still identifies as a Bronco, he now wears a Ridgebacks jersey. He’s focused on the present, adapting to the quiet anonymity of his new surroundings and life as a student-athlete.
“It’s nice out here, to be away from everything,” says Fiske, who is studying commerce at UOIT. “No one knows who I am.”
'We’re leaning on each other, right?’
Gomercic and Fiske were not best buddies when they played together in Humboldt, but they lived close enough to one another that they hung out frequently. Gomercic often attended whenever Fiske’s billets, Wes and Carla Clement, had a big crew of Broncos over to their house.
Naturally, they’ve grown closer since the crash and their subsequent moves to Oshawa.
“Us being the only two [Broncos] out here, we’re leaning on each, right?” Gomercic says. “It’s blossomed a little because of the circumstances.”
When they got to Oshawa, the entire Ridgebacks team sat them down and made it known that both players could count on them if they needed anything – no request would be too small.
“They just wanted to be treated like everyone else. They want to be a Ridgeback, and a student-athlete,” Hodgins says.
Their support network stretches far beyond the campus at UOIT. It’s difficult to quantify the outpouring of sympathy that followed the crash. Hockey and non-hockey people from around the world gravitated to the story. It was covered or picked up in some fashion by virtually every media outlet. An online fundraiser accrued more than $15-million to support the crash victims and their families.
The player agent and former NHL great Bobby Orr dedicated his new book, Bobby: My Story in Pictures, to the people of Humboldt and Broncos past and present.
“The hockey family is a big, generous family. When you think about what went on out west after the tragedy, the support, and it continues,” Orr told The Globe and Mail. “I dedicate the book to the whole community. The hockey family is why you do that, what you should do, the right thing to do. They’re part of the family. We’re thinking about them. All over the world. “
Almost eight months since the crash, Gomercic is still awed by the response.
From the Winnipeg Jets and principal owner Mark Chipman, to his parents, billets, doctors, therapists, Hodgins and the Ridgebacks coaching staff, opposing coaches, and just random people who’ve reached out to offer their support and condolences, he says the generosity of strangers still takes him by surprise.
“It’s just crazy. You think you’re just a Junior A player. No one will ever know you, but then people start to recognize you and it catches you off guard,” he says.
‘I think hockey helps me get away'
On paper, they’re just a couple of Prairie boys living the dream; two Canadian hockey players trying to keep the ride going a little longer. Thousands of young men across Canada do the same every year.
What happened on the bus did not diminish their love of the game. If anything, it’s been emboldened.
“From a mental perspective, I think hockey helps me get away. Forget about it. The first couple of games it was tough, you go through that routine, with certain people, and you realize they're not here anymore,” Gomercic says. “But once I got over that, I started thinking about it, and being thankful for the memories instead of being upset about them.”
Fiske scored a goal in his first OUA game as a member of the Ridgebacks on Oct. 6.
At 13:28 of the second period in a game against Nipissing, he followed an odd-man rush up the ice and into the attacking zone, where he drove toward the net and potted a loose puck in the crease to give his team a 4-1 lead.
Two weeks later, Gomercic notched his first college goal by tucking a rebound past a goaltender from the Royal Military College in the second period to help UOIT to a 7-2 victory.
On their own, neither event is remarkable. Hockey players score all the time. But for these two Ridgeback rookies, those goals represent the beginning of a new chapter, eight months after their lives were turned upside down on a highway in rural Saskatchewan.