NIPAWIN, Sask. — The Estevan Bruins made a pit stop on their way into Nipawin, Sask., on Friday night to pay their respects to members of the Humboldt Broncos who were killed in a bus crash.
Just over 24 hours later, the Bruins stood in a circle around centre ice with the Nipawin Hawks for a moment of silence before Game 1 of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League final.
Bruins coach Chris Lewgood says the visit to the crash site was a first step towards closure for a lot of his players.
"There’s no closure yet but it’s been a really emotional time for everybody, some more than others, some because they’ve had personal connections, others just because they don’t know how to handle," Lewgood said after Saturday’s game.
"For us it was the first step towards building back up after everything has been torn down so much."
Humboldt’s bus was travelling to Nipawin when it collided with a semi-trailer at a rural intersection north of Tisdale. Sixteen of the bus’s 29 passengers have died while the other thirteen were injured.
The Broncos were on their way to a playoff game in Nipawin when the crash happened.
A faint sound of sobbing was heard in the sold-out crowd of 1,200 at Centennial Arena during the pre-game ceremony. It was the first SJHL game since the accident.
Hawks players wore green helmets to honour the Broncos throughout the game and both teams were wearing Humboldt Broncos ribbons on their jerseys. Both referees and linesmen had "Broncos" on their nameplates.
First responders were honoured and walked out onto the ice to a standing ovation.
Among those in attendance for the game were Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe along with the mayor of Humboldt, Rob Muench.
A group of long-time Broncos fans also made the 2 1/2 hour drive from Humboldt for the game.
Lewgood said the team stopped in Tisdale to get flowers and that he could sense some nerves as the Bruins neared the crash site.
Estevan captain Jake Fletcher said that riding the bus to the game was no different until they got to the memorial.
"That’s when people really started to get more emotional," he said of the 30-minute stop. "It was pretty tough but we got through it as a team, we all supported each other and just happy to be here now."
The SJHL had decided earlier in the week after consulting with the Broncos and the league’s board of directors that it would continue the post-season.
Former NHLer Chris Joseph, whose son Jaxon died in the crash, tweeted before the game: "Tonight I cheer for SJHL!!! Go Hawks, Go Bruins. We’re all so happy you are playing."
Meanwhile, Nipawin coach Doug Johnson described the past week as a roller coaster, but said it was nice having surviving Broncos assistant coach Chris Beaudry on the ice for one of the team’s practices earlier in the week.
"He helped the guys realize that it’s OK to move on," Johnson said. "It’s OK to smile and play and I thought that we had gotten there but to just get a little confirmation was huge.
"And hopefully we’re able to help him out a little bit where he has a sense of purpose for a day and got back to doing what he was supposed to do, which is coaching hockey."
T-shirts with the hashtag SaskStrong were on sale near the entrance with $5 from the funds being donated to the Broncos.
The game’s 50/50 sales were to be donated to Humboldt head coach Darcy Haugan’s family along with cotton candy sales. Haugan was one of the 16 who died.
Note: The Bruins won the game 5-2. The winner of the SJHL final goes to the Anavet Cup against the Manitoba league champion with the winner of that going to the Royal Bank Cup in Chilliwack, B.C., in May.