LAS VEGAS — Late Humboldt Broncos coach Darcy Haugan was honoured with the inaugural Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award on Wednesday night, and 10 of the surviving players were reunited for the first time since the bus crash that killed 16 people.
The players donned gold Broncos sweaters at the NHL Awards, 2 1/2 months after the junior team’s bus collided with a semitrailer at an intersection in rural Saskatchewan. Three of the survivors were unable to attend the awards show.
Haugan was remembered for telling his players "it’s a great day to be a Bronco" before each game. The O’Ree award, named for the NHL’s first black player, is presented to an individual who, through hockey, has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society.
"We can cry together, we can laugh together, we can do everything together and just kind of heal in our own way," said Tyler Smith, who suffered nerve damage and significant injuries to his left side, including a broken collarbone and shoulder blade. "It’s a blessing to be able to be here together. We’re all going to be Broncos forever, and no matter what day it is, it’s a great day to be a Bronco."
Members of the hockey team at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which won a state championship 11 days after 14 students and three staff members were fatally shot in February, also were recognized, as were survivors and first responders of the Route 91 Harvest festival mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1.
"The hockey family across the whole world, I’m very thankful for it. It’s something you don’t really expect," said Broncos alternate captain Kaleb Dahlgren, who suffered skull and spinal fractures. "You grow up with these people in your life and you consider them family. You’re with them every day and so hockey is a family community. The support we’ve received from everybody has been very, very, very generous and we’re all thankful for that. It makes the healing process easier."
The NHL and NHLPA hope to continue the healing on Aug. 24, when Washington Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson, a Saskatoon native, will bring the Stanley Cup to Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt, as part of an on-ice event that will include an on-ice skills competition between NHL players.
"I got the opportunity to meet the Broncos yesterday and their fighting spirit rubs off on you," said Tampa Bay Lightning Victor Hedman, who was awarded with the Norris Trophy as the top defenceman. "After those tragedies, the hockey community shows that everyone is together. This is more than just a game, we are family.
"It’s such a special place, too, in Vegas. What they went through in October and the way this community rallied together with the hockey team, and the way the performed I think it’s important for me to acknowledge that."
Golden Knights William Karlsson and Deryk Engelland, coach Gerard Gallant and the team’s general manager George McPhee —- all four of whom won awards — joined the first responders and survivors honoured on stage midway through the show.
Engelland, who took home the Mark Messier Leadership Award, said the touching and now infamous "We Are Vegas Strong" speech he delivered before the Golden Knights’ home opener will always be one of the biggest moments of his hockey career.
"Once I knew I was doing it, that’s pretty much all that was going through my head for about four or five days, so I didn’t want to screw that up," Engelland said. "It got us embedded in the community and the community embedded in us. Guys really took it upon themselves to keep winning for the people that were affected and the city. The excitement after every goal during every game really lifted every guy in our locker room."
New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall, who was awarded the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, said he was touched by all three ceremonies that recognized the tragedies that took place during the season.
"Three terrible tragedies, three things that should never happen, we should never have to go through as a society," Hall said. "As a community, as a hockey community, you try and help everyone around you, you try and rally and just be a kind person to one another and hopefully that makes someone feel better.’