Humboldt Broncos ready for emotional return to the ice

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New season. New head coach. New players. But the memories from last season will never be replaced.

Wednesday night, inside a sold out Elgar Petersen Arena, the Humboldt Broncos will be playing hockey again in what should be an emotional scene.

It was the night of April 6 that 16 people, including 10 players, were killed and 13 others injured in a bus crash as the team was traveling to a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League game in Nipawin, Saskatchewan. The summer was spent healing and rebuilding. Despite the tragic loss, the team was determined to play again to help the community of Humboldt.

Among the dead was Broncos head coach Darcy Haugan, who’d been behind the bench since 2015. During the NHL Awards in June, he was honored as the first recipient of the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, which is awarded to “to an individual who – through the game of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society.” 

Ten members of the Broncos reunited on stage in Las Vegas, along with Haugan’s wife, Christina, to accept the award.

Replacing Haugan behind the bench is former NHLer Nathan Oystrick.

“I’ve said it time and time again: I’ll never be Darcy Haugan. I’m not trying to be Darcy Haugan. I’m trying to be myself,” Oystrick recently told the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix. “For the people that knew him, they loved him to death. But I’m trying to bring my own elements, my own thoughts and ideas. I’m not trying to take his spot, that’s for sure. There are things, obviously, from his core covenant, that I believe as well: that’s relationships and respect … But at the same time I’m just trying to be myself and coach the way I coach and do the best I can.”

As the Broncos prepare to take the ice for their season opener, their hearts and minds will be on those lost on April 6 as well as Layne Matechuk and Morgan Gobeil, two players who remain hospitalized as they recover from traumatic brain injuries. Gobeil’s family released a statement on Monday saying that he’ll remain in hospital for a few more months with a long road of recovery ahead.

The hockey world rallied around Humboldt and the team following the crash. A GoFundMe campaign raised over $15 million and total donations reached $20 million. (According to TSN Frank Seravalli, it’s still being determined how to disperse the money, which will go only to the 29 families who had someone traveling on the bus that night in April.) In August, Chandler Stephenson of the Washington Capitals used his day with the Stanley Cup to bring it to Humboldt, a promise he made before the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It was evident that around every corner, the Broncos had the support of many around the world.

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When the post-game ceremony ends, the Broncos will then begin preparing for the next hurdle. On Friday, they’ll begin their first road trip since the crash as they travel to Nipawin, the destination they were heading to on April 6. It’s “a road trip that we never finished,” said Brayden Camrud, one of two survivors who returned this season.

The final standings won’t matter at the end of the season. The fact that the Broncos are back on the ice with the support and love of the Humboldt community and hockey world will help get them through what will be an emotional season.

“They’ve gone through hurt last year,” Oystrick told the Canadian Press. “Some of these guys lost friends last year and the year before. So guys are dealing with things and will continue to deal with things.

“My faith has not been destroyed by this, in fact it’s probably been strengthened.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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