HUMBOLDT, Sask. — It was intended that the rink be full Sunday night in Humboldt, just not with prime ministers, TV cameras, and flowers.
They would have dropped a puck on Game 6 in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League semifinal Sunday at 7:30 p.m., had the Humboldt Broncos snuck into Nipawin and won Game 5 as planned.
These are the nights junior operators dream of. A hot team, a full barn, jerseys flying off the rack and a product in April that sells season tickets in October. This night had most of that, but for all the wrong reasons.
Alas, nothing has turned out the way the Humboldt Broncos are accustomed to these last few days, a routine bus trip up highway 35 on Friday resulting in a bus crash that changed everything this small Saskatchewan city has ever known.
“This is a very, very tough time for all of us,” said mayor Rob Muench, on a stage that covered the entire zone the Broncos would have been defending, had things gone as planned.
Instead, as you’ve likely seen by now, a vigil was held to pray for the 15 dead, the players still listed in critical condition — at least one player whose ability to walk again is in question — and the rest of the survivors of what will go down in history as the Humboldt Broncos bus crash of 2018.
None of the dead have been buried, but this vigil still had to happen. People here had to be together, their minds have been on these poor Broncos for two days now. They had to gather here, and gather they did, filling Elgar Petersen Arena, an adjacent curling rink, and the high school gym to the tune of almost 5,000 in a city with a population of not much more than that.
There just isn’t a manual for grieving of this magnitude. Like eating the proverbial elephant, you have to take it one bite at a time, right?
“It’s one of the steps we have to go through in our community. To use a hockey analogy, we’ll stickhandle our way through this,” said Muench.
With the parking lot out front filled beyond capacity, out back of the rink sat the truck belonging to coach and GM Darcy Haugen. It was parked in the spot he left it when he boarded that bus for Nipawin on Friday afternoon, said friend Andre Kruger, a local hockey dad and long-time goal judge at Broncos games.
“I drive into the parking lot this morning and see Darcy Haugen’s truck, and immediately you feel sad. Because you know you’re never going to see him again,” said Kruger, a former President of Humboldt Minor Hockey whose two sons play. “That’s the reason we’re here, so we can mingle with each other. It’s how you start the healing process, right?”
But the healing process is a nebulous thing, the goalposts moving across the Canadian prairies as devastated parents return dead sons home for burial services in their hometowns. Maybe after those funerals — at least three dead Broncos hail from the Edmonton suburb of St. Albert — can the healing truly begin, if even then.
Either way, Sunday’s vigil was a place to see your neighbour, an old Broncos teammate, or a hockey parent from back when the boys were in Atoms. This was for anyone who felt like they might need a hug and a cry in a city that is bursting at the seams with people who fit that description.
“With men, they try not to cry, because it’s not a good thing to do. I think the sooner we get the tears out of our system, the better,” Kruger declared. “The young kids are not scared to cry. The Grade 12 kids? They’re not scared at all. There is no ‘Cowboys don’t cry’ mentality anymore.”
Before we were done, it was Kruger who couldn’t hold back his tears. It is here, in a town that experienced the unthinkable, where interviews end in hugs more often than not.
“Tonight is for sorrow,” were the last words that Kruger could squeeze out.
It was like a funeral Sunday, without going downstairs for the squares and coffee. How could it not be? Fifteen have died, and the prayers offered for a few of the survivors are by all accounts going to be needed.
The difference is, the real funerals are yet to come here.
The tunnel is long, and the light still dim.
When they die this young, a thought and a prayer don’t stand a chance.