Al and Jean Gaetz were in their arena seats in Row 8, in Section U near the blue line on Sunday, just as they were planning to do if their beloved Humboldt Broncos had reached Game 6.
They’ve held Broncos season tickets since 1973; they billeted young players for decades. Al, still selling real estate at age 82, used to be the team’s general manager and a key fundraiser.
The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League club struggled early in this season. The Gaetzes didn’t expect them to get past the first round of the playoffs, but they beat Melfort four games to one. The couple watched the last game of the second round against the Nipawin Hawks, Game 4, after several Bronco shots found the back of the net and a few others hit the post, but the team lost 6-5 in triple overtime. “The way they played, they played their hearts out,” Al said.
The Gaetzes typically print out team rosters on game night—makeshift programs where they can scribble notes on the play. Ahead of Sunday night, though, they’d used a highlighter to mark up the “program,” marking the players and coaches who’d died on the team bus’ highway crash, en route to Nipawin last Friday for what should have been Game 5.
There would be no Game 6, either. Instead, the Gaetzes were in their seats for a vigil. Around 7:30 p.m., when the puck should have dropped, the night’s emcee of the service requested a moment of silence for the 15 who died: two coaches, a radio reporter, the team statistician, the bus driver and 10 young players.
A small Saskatchewan city that loves its team deeply now weeps for it openly, joined in sorrow by many people throughout Canada and abroad. It’s a grief that spirals out from this city where the players are local heroes to the schoolchildren; to the Saskatoon hospital caring for the surviving young players and their parents; to the Prairie communities like Montmarte, Sask., and St. Albert, Alta., from where victims and survivors hailed; to the many small towns where the children formerly played; and further outward to every Canadian town where hockey parents hug hockey kids after they return happy, exhausted and safe from their games. Like they’re supposed to.
This night was supposed to be Game 6 for the Humboldt Broncos. At the average home game this regular season, there might have been fewer than 600 fans. But tonight, they filled the arena well beyond the 1,872 the stands could accommodate. The adjacent curling rink, six sheets wide, was melted to accommodate hundreds more. Locals kept pouring in. They filled up the high school next door to watch a video feed of the proceedings.
Season ticket holders came. Fairweather fans. Relatives. People touched in various ways.
Young men clad in Broncos hoodies or team sweaters entered in clusters; some wore suits, while a few arrived with jerseys on over dress shirts and neckties. Nick Shumlanski, the only player on the bus who’s been discharged from hospital so far, wore his No. 21.
Their competitors also arrived to show respects, in jerseys of the Estevan Bruins, Kindersley Klippers, Melfort Mustangs and more. There were newly printed T-shirts: We are Humboldt Strong.
Everyone stood and sang quietly during the national anthem. Unlike at a hockey game, there was no applause on the final notes.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in attendance, as was Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, NHL alumni and other prominent figures. But the dignitary who received the warmest welcome from the crowd was Elgar Petersen, a humble and devoted team assistant since 1970, after whom the Broncos arena was named after in 2000.
Team president Kevin Garinger read the names of the players and staff who survived; then, his voice quivering, the ones who didn’t—including the head coach, the team’s captain and its youngest player, aged 16. “They will be forever be Humboldt Broncos,” Garinger said. He also paid tribute to the international outpouring of support: “This light will only grow in time, and in time the darkness will be less.”
Garinger is suffering through this darkness not just as the leader of his organization, but as a mourning billet dad. For the first time this year, the empty-nest father of three hosted two players from Alberta at his home, abiding their messy bedrooms and stocking up on eggs and pasta for their voracious appetites. “You fall in love with these guys and you know there’s a time when they’re not going to be in your home any more,” Garinger says. One of them, Ryan Straschnitzki, 18, suffered a broken back in the bus crash. The other, 21-year-old Conner Lukan, died.
The team bus, piloted by Charlie’s Charters driver Glen Doerksen, headed north on Highway 35, a 100-kilometre-per-hour highway with no shoulders and a faint yellow dividing line. They were less than a half-hour from Nipawin at about 5 p.m. when they approached Highway 335, which has the same speed limit but has a stop sign as it crosses the 35. A truck was travelling westbound past a grove of trees near the corner and then it collided with—one local said “T-boned”—the team bus. Overhead pictures showed a roadside covered with the truck’s containers of peat moss, a mainstay product in farm country, as well as knapsacks, sleeping bags and gear from the bus.
The team president was in Edmonton on a family emergency of his own when word got to him there might be a crash. He checked with team staff, and texted Lukan, but heard nothing. Then he got hold of the Nipawin Hawks’ president and learned how severe the crash was. He started the six-hour drive east to Humboldt; around the time he reached Saskatoon, his billet’s son’s real dad told Garinger that Conner was dead.
If this were a regular Game 6 day, the Broncos would have been racing into Johnny’s Bistro at 10:50am. Game days meant players get 50 per cent off. The early birds would order extra eggs benedict for the latecomers failed to beat the 11 a.m. cutoff before the restaurant stops serving breakfast. The team would slowly fill out the three tables in the middle of the restaurant and overflow into booths on the side. Only players, no coaches. Keeping track of who ordered what was impossible come playoff time.
“Near the end, they all looked alike because they all had blond hair, says Stephanie, a server at Johnny’s, who asked her last name not be used. “They would all be joking around on their cell phones and talking about their girlfriends.” It was part of the family routine.
This Sunday morning, the chairs were empty.
Meanwhile, the town’s Catholic church was full, some dressed in their Sunday best, others in game-night gear. A Broncos sweater was draped next to the holy water font, where congregants crossed themselves. It seemed everybody had some close connection to the players. One was a substitute teacher who imparted his love of The Great Gatsby to players, and had signed up this year in the season ticket drive.
One family lived across the street from deceased local teen Jacob Leicht, and remembers road hockey games until dusk.
Jason Zimmerman, a former assistant captain with the Broncos in the 1990s, emerged from the morning service and talked about his first-ever game with the team as a 17-year-old: a bus trip for an away game in Nipawin. “There’s nowhere else to go. You’re stuck on the bus with 20-some guys your age so you get to know each other real well,” Zimmerman says. In his day, before cell phones, teammates would go seat-hopping until they had talked to everybody on the squad.
As churchgoers exited, many streamed into the nearby Knights of Columbus hall for a weekly charity pancake breakfast—organizers asked forgiveness from the originally delegated charity, and redirected funds to the Broncos. The local No Frills donated the meal supplies.
In addition to donations flowing in from afar—more than $4 million raised online as of Sunday night—locals pitched in as they could. An A&W franchise pledged all Tuesday sales would go to the team. Humboldt’s gymnastic club offered free babysitting to vigil-goers. At the arena complex, traffic was directed by firefighters, neighbourhood watch volunteers, and police from Saskatoon, an hour west of the town.
Chris Beaudry, the Broncos’ assistant coach, was on hand. He’s the last surviving member of the coaching crew, after the collision killed head coach Darcy Haugan and assistant coach Mark Cross. Beaudry lives one hour east of Humboldt, and rather than double back for the bus northeast to Nipawin on Friday night, he took his own car. He says he trailed the bus by about 40 minutes. He learned of the crash from a Nipawin Hawks official. The rival team’s official called to alert him of the tragedy on the road ahead.
The last time he had seen the team was at Wednesday’s triple-overtime setback, but that tough loss, which put the team down three games to one in the best-of-seven series, didn’t rob him of faith. “I never once thought we weren’t going to win the series, even though we were down. Because I’m a confident person and we have a confident group,” Beaudry said in an interview. As past hopes intersected with present reality in his mind, he stopped that thought. “I don’t like saying this stuff about Game 5. There is no Game 5.”
Had Sunday been game night, Joe Fischl probably would have been in the penalty box tonight had the Broncos won Game 5. The former SJHL referee has since retired from wearing his stripes and now spends game day opening the doors at the penalty box.
The Broncos are family in every sense of the word to Fischl. He was a billet family for many years. His son played for the Broncos in the 2000s. His daughter Kim worked in the back office as the marketing and office manager and married Jamie Brockman, who would later become the team’s president, only to step back from the role after last season.
Kim and Jamie Brockman had a billet last year, but he asked for a trade in the offseason. The Brockmans decided to take the year off from hosting a Broncos player in their home, but tonight they’ll be reunited with their former billet.
If he wasn’t traded, he would have been on that bus. “It’s terrible to say, but I’m so thankful he asked for a trade or I’d be going through what all these other billet parents are going through right now,” Kim said. “It’s like losing your own child.”
He phoned last night and said he was flying in today to Humboldt for the vigil. And he texted: “Love you Kim.”
During the ceremony, which was dominated by local religious leaders, team chaplain Pastor Sean Brandow told the crowd of Jesus Christ’s scars; they healed, but were still there. He likened that to Humboldt’s pain. “This isn’t going to go away; it’s not going to be as raw. Can we heal? Yes. Will the scar be there? Yes.”
At 9 p.m., after the service ended, the Broncos faithful filed toward the parking lot. That’s when a group of men in Humboldt Broncos hockey sweaters from different generations start to gather around centre ice.
The backs of their hockey sweaters, all from various generations, had different names: Vandestype. Rintoul. Schroeder. Ballas. Ness. Allan. Leier. Kempf. Freter. Landry. Kirzinger.
They stared at the same team crest at the centre of Elgar Petersen Arena in silence. They put their arms around each other. Spontaneously, the fans—the many who couldn’t leave just yet—started a round of applause.