HUMBOLDT, Sask. – They lined up with the hockey sticks they’d once left on their front porches, Humboldt Broncos jerseys on their backs, and hearts still heavy from the pain.
For hours, a single file line of green and gold extended around the perimeter of Elgar Petersen Arena in much the same way the nation wrapped its arms around this community.
Once inside they were treated to western-based Hockey Hall of Fame displays and a chance to meet Washington Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson, who brought the Stanley Cup for thousands to pose with.
Afterwards they mingled and played ball hockey with 18 other current and former NHLers.
But they came for much more than that.
"There’s been a lot of sadness in this rink and today is about celebrating and moving forward," said new club president Jamie Brockman in the midst of a stirring Humboldt Hockey Day celebration that coincided with the team’s opening of training camp.
"I think a lot of people were excited about getting back on the ice. Hockey is starting. Hockey is important and this is another step moving forward."
Stephenson made good on his playoff promise to bring the Cup to Humboldt, 110 kilometres east of his hometown of Saskatoon. He started the day with a private meeting with billets, family members and players from the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League club that lost 16 of the 29 people on board the team bus that collided with a semi trailer at a rural Saskatchewan intersection April 6.
"It’s tough seeing some of the parents and billet families," said Stephenson, 24, who played several minor hockey tournaments in Humboldt and trained with Broncos crash survivors Kaleb Dahlgren and Brayden Camrud. (Dahlgren is moving on to play with York University and Camrud is one of two returning Broncos players in camp.)
"All you can do is give your condolences. You can’t replace a life, so you just try to help out as much as you can and that’s what this day is all about. The main focus was to bring it here and let them have their pictures and smile and enjoy the day. It snowballed for sure, but it’s for the right reason. It’s not for the limelight. I wanted to do what I could and help out how I could."
— Humboldt Broncos (@HumboldtBroncos) August 24, 2018
Dahlgren dubbed the early meeting a "healing room."
"I was holding back tears for sure," said Dahlgren.
"It’s hard to see the families. Just seeing them hurts me. This is a process and a healing time."
Outside of that emotional meeting, there were no tears.
Kids got autographs, shot pucks at old washers and dryers, and played ball hockey with players like Brayden Schenn, Brayden McNabb, Josh Manson, Travis Hamonic, Mark Jankowski and Scott Hartnell.
Much like the overwhelming support that saw the goal of raising $100,000 in a GoFundMe campaign turn into $15 million, organizers with the NHL, NHLPA and the Broncos were blown away by the crowd of close to 4,000.
After several hours of mugging for photos with the Cup, Stephenson and the world’s most famous trophy had to leave. Instead of disappointing those still in line, Stephenson walked the Cup out along the line for all to touch on its way by.
"Kudos to Chandler for being the catalyst for this," said Andrew Ference, one of the NHL’s organizers.
"We all rode the buses and know that brotherhood and we reached out to say we want to do something. We were at a loss for what the right thing to do was. What we do know is if you can bring people together in a room to hug and talk and lean on each other, there’s something really powerful about that. The hockey community is tight and we have so much in common and having bonds with billet families and on buses.
"To make the day possible and see all the support and have a team going forward is fantastic to see."
Tiffany and Mike Cannon drove in for the celebration from Saskatoon where they had previously met Dahlgren as part of Dahlgren’s Diabeauties, a program that mentors their seven-year-old son, Josh, as a fellow Type 1 Diabetic.
"We’re here to see the Cup, support Humboldt and Kaleb Dahlgren," said Tiffany, just before the family posed for a picture with Stephenson in front of the Cup.
"We knew it would be big. My girlfriend just called to say she’s at the back of the line behind the rink. It’s not surprising. Kaleb is an amazing role model for kids and we wouldn’t miss this."
Broncos t-shirts were handed out next to the ball hockey rinks set up in the curling rink, players mingled with fans and everyone wore smiles as the conversation revolved around hockey, not heartache.
On this day, there was little talk of the tragedy or dwelling on the sadness.
The rink and community centre that hosted a national memorial for those who died was a fun place to be again.
As it should be.
Hockey has that power.
"We wanted to make this a happy day and focus on the Broncos and the fact they’re back," said former NHLer Chris Joseph, who lost his son, Jaxon, in the crash.
"We are very excited hockey is back in Humboldt and thanks to the NHL and NHLPA who have made an environment to make this a happy day. I wanted to see the families and share the stories and hugs."
Everyone wanted to chip in to help.
"Time on earth is precious, so take advantage of every day," said Hartnell, who admitted he thought of the bus crash with every intersection he passed while driving out.
"I have a brand new son at three months old and I couldn’t imagine that being him."
Nor could Hamonic, who is also a new father and echoed Hartnell’s sentiment.
"To do our small part to put some smiles on peoples’ faces, it’s a no brainer," said the Flames defenceman.
"It makes you happy to see the good in people. It makes you want to do more – it’s contagious. Honoured to be here."
#StanleyCup visits Humboldt Broncos memorial site. While their Stanley Cup dreams went unfulfilled, we thought we’d bring Stanley to them. God Bless RIP Saskatchewan highway intersection #35 & #335) @NHL @HockeyHallFame @HumboldtBroncos #HumboldtStrong pic.twitter.com/ST3eUfXCIg
— Philip Pritchard (@keeperofthecup) August 24, 2018
Earlier in the day Cup handlers drove two hours out of their way to the makeshift memorial at the scene of the bus crash, posting a stirring photo of the scene with the Cup on Twitter.
Eight hours later the crowds disappeared, the party was cleaned up and all that was left was a group of 79 youngsters hitting the ice in front of a sparse crowd, anxious to carry on a proud tradition in this city of 5,800.
Opening night is Sept. 12.
Things are far from being back to normal, but with the love and support of those who showed up Friday, this place is one step closer.