HUMBOLDT, Sask. — It is Sunday morning in Humboldt, a quiet day in a quiet town in northeastern Saskatchewan. Surrounded by still snow-covered fields, this part of our country is still a couple of plus-8 days from turning, like a jack rabbit, from white to brown.
You wouldn’t know that tragedy has visited here by the drive into town, a wide-open corridor behind a roadside “Humboldt” sign that sports the usual Canadian store fronts.
A Co-op gas station, a Sobey’s grocery store, a Boston Pizza, a Canadian Tire. Timmy’s sits on the right-hand side as you enter town from the west, just across from the local Ford dealer.
A DQ, and A&W a KFC… The fast-food alphabet spells out the same way here in Humboldt as it does in Campbellton, N.B., Trail, B.C. or Pembroke, Ont.
But from now ‘til forever, this town isn’t the same as those ones. This is Humboldt, the scene of the worst bus crash in Canadian sports history.
“As a hockey fan, and a hockey parent, and a hockey player, and a hockey billet,” began Justin Rempel, “everyone just wants the best for their kids. You’re just trying to make them a better person.”
On Sunday morning, Rempel, the trainer for the Melfort Mustangs team that was vanquished by the Broncos in Round 1 of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs, was at the Uniplex, the centre of every Canadian town like this. The curling rinks are here, as well as the town pool, the high school, the public workout facility, the convention centre, and of course, Elgar Petersen Arena.
It is not just the home of the Humboldt Broncos. It is the only indoor arena in town, and there stood Rempel, sporting the Mustangs jersey of Jaxon Joseph, who was traded to Humboldt before the deadline for Tristan Elder, in a transaction that will forever shape two families.
Joseph was killed Friday, and now Rempel, the son of a Saskatchewan pastor, is back in Humboldt, lending a spiritual hand at the Sunday vigil.
“Everyone is hurting the same — it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” Rempel said. “You could be in the Maritimes, and this can affect you the same way it affects someone from here.”
Humboldt is that dusty gem among wheat fields that gave the hockey world the great Glenn “Mr. Goalie” Hall, the same way a tiny pimple on the Prairie called Floral, Sask. gave birth to Mr. Hockey — Gordie Howe.
It’s a big deal when a town this small pumps out a player that big, so at the Glenn Hall monument, there is also respect paid to the careers of Humboldt and area pros Brendan Witt, Jerome Engele, Brad Lauer, and Ralph Klassen.
(The old Cleveland Baron Klassen, his plaque explains, was in 1979 claimed in an expansion draft, then traded twice the next day. That made him property of four teams in two days.)
Today, putting kids in the NHL remains the goal, but it has fallen down the queue. It is more realistic to talk about qualifying kids for college scholarships, or simply preparing them to be solid adults, the kind of people this community is leaning on so heavily today.
And this team was, in fact, pulling Humboldt together.
The cliché is that the junior rinks are packed every night, but Elgar’s place has not always been full. The Broncos were coming out of an unstable period, but coach and GM Darcy Haugen had taken ahold of this club, and turned it into a contender again.
“He built a team, this year, that was worth watching,” said a season ticket holder, who did not want to be named. “They had lots of speed, lots of excitement, good goaltending… As the year progressed they just kept getting better, and better and better. It was happening.”
“(Haugen) talked about the fact the Humboldt Broncos were about not building hockey players, but building amazing young men,” said team president Kevin Garinger. “Through that process, they could ultimately become great hockey players too.”
Haugen was one of the 15 killed Friday, when the Broncos bus was hit by a semi-trailer just north of Tisdale, Sask. Of the 29 people who were heading up to Nipawin for Game 5 of the SJHL semi-final, 15 are dead, 13 are still in hospital — some with very serious injuries — and one unnamed player was released from hospital on Sunday.
The numbness is wearing off here, as shock and sadness sets in.
“As the names are coming out, it’s getting harder and harder for the community, for parents, for everyone else,” said Humboldt mayor Rob Muench, his cell phone ringing incessantly even as he stood behind a podium to address the media. “I’m getting emails, phone calls and text messages from people — I don’t even know who they are. A text from an area code that I don’t even know where: ‘Here’s a poem that I wrote. Here’s a song. Here’s a message.’”
Prime Minister Trudeau is here, as are Ron MacLean and Don Cherry, major network anchors like Ian Hanomansing and Lisa LaFlamme, and media from every national outlet. Many will have flights booked for Toronto Monday, and as the national glare predictably fades, this little Prairie town will be left to grieve, and put back together a hockey team that is, oftentimes, the centre of its social calendar.
“This is going to be a long haul for us,” said Mayor Meunch. “I just talked to (the mayor of) Swift Current, and they’re still suffering (from their 1986 bus crash). We’re going to need support for our community, to be there for each other.
“Not just days, not just weeks, not just months. It could be longer.”