How the Humboldt Broncos bus crash changes a hockey town

'It's not about the hockey anymore, It's about the people. It's about the families.'

Fire hydrants in Humboldt, Sask., are painted to resemble green Bronco players. A local bakery sells Bronco doughnuts on Sundays. Johnny’s Bistro, where the team often eats pan scrambler for breakfast after practice, serves half-price dishes to players on game days.

“The hockey team is probably the biggest thing about Humboldt,” says Austin Duzan, who played for the Broncos in 2014 and 2015, beginning at age 18. “Every store had Bronco logos and sold jerseys,” he says. “If they sold furniture, they had green couches.”

Humboldt has been devastated by the fatal highway collision between the Broncos’ team bus and a tractor trailer on Friday, which left 15 confirmed dead. The team was on its way to its fifth game of the playoffs, the semi-final of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, which for some players was one league away from the NHL. Politicians, players, and people around the world are rallying in support of the victims, sending money to a GoFundMe campaign and planning vigils for Sunday night when the Broncos should have played next.

READ: ‘Waves of grief’: Condolences pour in after Humboldt crash

Humboldt, population 5,800, has long been defined by the team, which was founded in 1970. In the city, players are relative celebrities for whom locals insist on buying coffee when spotted at Tim Hortons. For a place so invested in this team, devastation runs to the core after tragedy took its most talented.

“It’s not about the hockey anymore,” says Duzan. “It’s about the people. It’s about the families.”

Local businesses support the team almost as a rule. “You sponsor, and you put ads on with them,” says Mark Doepker, owner of Universal Sports, who attended the Broncos’ last game, which they lost in triple overtime. “Standing room only during the playoffs,” adds Calvin Lukan, owner of Modern Meat & Abattoir, which also sponsors the team. “When you think of Humboldt, the first thing you think of is the Humboldt Broncos,” says Duzan. “That’s the first thing you see when you drive into Humboldt, from the highway, is the rink.”

Players would shovel snow at a seniors’ home, according to Lukan, and play weekly games of floor hockey with individuals with disabilities, says Duzan, and residents knew them well enough to understand their playoff traditions. “They grow their beards, and they colour their hair green and all,” says Judy Plag, manager of Bella Vista Inn, across the street from their arena, which does catering and supports the team. “I’m sure some of them don’t wash their socks.”

Since the crash, Plag says support has been offered from as far away as Norway and Australia, and she recently received a call from two of her frequent guests, hunters in South Carolina who wanted to help. “Humboldt is a ‘city,’ but we’re small-town,” says Plag. “In Saskatchewan, hockey and football and sports, curling, is our way of life.”

The way of life for a Bronco player often involves staying with a billet family, after they are scouted from away and move to Humboldt for the team. They eat their first breakfast each morning around 8:30 a.m. at home, and a second breakfast after their morning skate. Players would nap, sometimes the full afternoon.

On game days, they often arrive at the arena two hours early wearing suits, ties and dress shoes, according to one former teammate who played with the team in 2012 but who wishes to remain anonymous. For away games, the most senior players sit at the back of the bus, he says, often bickering about the vehicle’s thermostat.

In the dressing room, players have their own stalls, with the goalies assigned slightly larger lockers, the former player recalls. Some players superstitiously eat the exact same meal before games, won’t do their laundry if they’re on a scoring or winning streak, or always put on the right skate before the left.

After winning games, in the 2012 season, the chosen most valuable player would get to make a “W” on the wall with hockey tape. In 2014-15, Duzan says, the MVP would get to keep a green hard hat until the next game, though the cap was still not as valued as their jerseys.

“That was like the holy grail,” says Duzan. “There was nothing more idolized than your jersey.” At the end of a game, even if they lost, “you just hang it up in your stall, with the logo facing out.”


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.