A version of the following story appeared in the 2018-19 first edition of AVALANCHE, the official game magazine of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey Club. For more feature stories, purchase a copy of the magazine during Avs home games at Pepsi Center. All proceeds from game-magazine sales support youth hockey associations in Colorado.
The Avalanche honored members of the Humboldt Broncos prior to the Nov. 24 game at Pepsi Center against the Dallas Stars.
Ice hockey is played on six of the seven continents on the planet, but the sport isn't as big as it sometimes seems.
That much was evident this past spring when the hockey community rallied around a small rural city in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Humboldt has nearly 6,000 residents, and they love their Humboldt Broncos. Playing at the Junior A level in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, the Broncos have won 10 league titles and have been crowned Canadian Jr. A champions twice since their inception in 1970.
"It's a community-owned team. It's a team that the community backs, they rally behind, they get excited about. It brings families together, it brings friends together," says Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar, who grew up in Humboldt.
On April 6, the Broncos were traveling for a road playoff game and were looking to keep their championship hopes alive trailing 3-1 in their semifinal series against the Nipawin Hawks. The team never got the chance to mount a comeback in the best-of-seven series.
At the intersection of Highways 35 and 335, about 18 miles to go on the roughly 120-mile trip to Nipawin for Game 5, the team bus was involved in an accident with a semi-truck. The collision resulted in the death of 16 Humboldt players, coaches, trainers and staff and left 13 others seriously injured.
News of the accident started to spread across Canada that night, then throughout the United States and soon around the globe. By the next morning, the hockey community was grieving the loss of some of their own.
"I heard about it pretty early in the morning, and obviously later on in the day you realized the extent of it and what actually happened," said Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog. "It's a shock. At first you immediately go back to all those nights and hours and long rides you spent on buses. It didn't even cross my mind back then as kid."
For the Avalanche, the team was getting ready to play its regular-season finale against the St. Louis Blues. It was the most important game of the campaign for the team as it needed to win in regulation to advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The players and coaches' minds were laser-focused on the task at hand, but their hearts were nearly 1,000 miles away with those affected.
"We were all playing for our playoff lives, but in the grand scheme of things, we realized it was a minor detail with what real life really is and what those families and that town of Humboldt was going through," Landeskog said.
The accident hit especially close to home for Bednar, who considers Humboldt his hometown and played for the Broncos before moving on to the major-junior ranks in the Western Hockey League. While he was born in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, Bednar grew up in Humboldt after his father, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, was stationed there twice.
"The bulk of my childhood was in that city," Bednar said the morning following the crash. "I grew up as a young guy dreaming of playing for the Broncos and then had the opportunity as a teenager and then moved on to the Western League. I know what that team means to that town."
Bednar had another connection to the crash as one of his friends is the father of goalie Jacob Wassermann, who is now paralyzed from the waist down due to the accident.
The Avalanche went on to defeat the Blues 5-2 in the season finale to clinch a playoff berth, and the organization collected funds for the people of Humboldt during the game. The team raised $20,000 through the 50/50 raffle that evening and sent the proceeds to PARTNERS Family Services, which offers counselling and support to the people of Humboldt and the surrounding community.
Colorado wasn't alone in its support for the Broncos, as every NHL squad paid tribute to Humboldt on the last day of the regular season. In the postseason, the Avalanche and the 15 other clubs wore Humboldt Broncos decals on the players' helmets and the coaching staffs wore green ribbon lapel pins in remembrance.
During the heat of the playoffs, Bednar's focus was two-fold: on the Avs trying to defeat the Presidents' Trophy-winning Nashville Predators and the people of Humboldt.
Once Colorado's postseason run was over, Bednar headed home.
He attended the Country Thunder Tribute Concert, headlined by Dallas Smith, in nearby Saskatoon on April 27 to raise funds for the Broncos, and it was there that he started forming his own plan to help the team. The Avalanche coach teamed up with Winnipeg Jets broadcaster Brian Munz and Laurie Warford, both Humboldt natives, to create the Humboldt Broncos Memorial Golf Tournament.
"I still have a lot of family and friends there. Some of them were hit hard by the tragedy, and there is a lot of healing to do," Bednar said. "Talking with different people that I still know in the community and from around the area, I just felt like I was in the position where I could get families and businesses and supporters of the Humboldt Broncos together and have a good time."
The inaugural event on Aug. 18 at the Humboldt Country Club featured 144 golfers split into 36 foursomes and raised nearly $100,000 for the hockey team. There was also a banquet dinner and silent and live auctions, which featured NHL and professional sports-signed memorabilia.
A suite for a 2018-19 Avalanche game brought in the most money in the auction at $4,500, while an autographed suit worn by Don Cherry, the former NHL Colorado Rockies head coach and longtime host of Coach's Corner on Hockey Night In Canada, went for $2,000.
"I am extremely pleased with how it went," says Bednar. "It was the first time I had ever tried to set something like that up. Laurie was instrumental in it. She helped convince me to do it. It was really good, it was a fun day. We got some good weather. I think everyone enjoyed it. There was lots of laughter and tears."
The plan is to have the golf outing be an annual event.
"For years to come I would like to continue to do this and have people reflect on their relationship with those people that we've lost. Remember them but still have a good time and raise some money for the Humboldt Broncos hockey team, which is what brought all of those people together in the first place," says Bednar.
Nearly a week after the tournament, the NHL and NHL Players' Association arrived in Humboldt with the Stanley Cup in tow.
Chandler Stephenson helped the Washington Capitals win its first Stanley Cup in June and immediately said he was going to spend his day with the Cup in Humboldt. Stephenson is from Saskatoon and two of his friends, Kaleb Dahlgren and Brayden Camrud, were among those that survived the accident.
During the Stanley Cup's trip, it visited survivors before makings its rounds throughout the community. The trophy also went to the site of the bus crash, where it sat next to the memorials of those that lost their lives.
"The community deserves to have a good day," Stephenson told the Associated Press at the time. "We're not trying to be saviors by any means because nothing can replace a life. We're just trying to make it as positive a day as we can and hopefully put some smiles and some laughs on some people's faces."
Several NHL players from Saskatchewan and elsewhere traveled to the city to take part in "Humboldt Hockey Day" and helped put on a street hockey event in the community.
"I'm just really happy the NHLPA and the league and everyone is sort of stepping up and recognizing that this is an important thing that happened, and that we want to help be a part of the healing process any way we possibly can," Bednar said. "To see them make the trip out to Humboldt and put these clinics on and making a weekend of it and getting people together in the community again is fantastic."
An overwhelming amount of support and tributes for the Broncos have come in from across the globe in the months since the accident, and each one has been meaningful and welcomed in the Humboldt community.
"There is no question that they appreciate what everyone has done in support of the team," Bednar says. "Whether it be financial or guidance or others sorts of ways that they have been helped. It's still ongoing. People are still reaching out and seeing what they can do."
Almost immediately after the accident, a GoFundMe campaign was started to help the victims and raised more than $15 million in only 12 days. It was the second-largest fundraiser in the donation website's history, with people from 80 countries contributing funds.
Hockey players of all ages, experiences and skill levels did their own small homage to the team by leaving hockey sticks outside of front doors of homes and businesses in honor of the Humboldt players.
"The support has been fantastic, and it just shows how special the hockey community is to be able to gather around the team and help support them any way they can," Bednar said. "It makes me proud to be a part of the hockey community and especially the NHL. What the players are doing and what the league is doing to help support that, it's humbling."
The NHL also made a heartful tribute to Humboldt at its annual Awards in Las Vegas on June 20. Ten Broncos players attended the event, including Wassermann.
Humboldt head coach Darcy Haugan was one of the 16 people that died in the accident and was named the inaugural recipient of the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award, which is presented "to an individual who--through the game of hockey--has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society."
Haugan's wife Christina accepted the award on his behalf, with the Broncos players beside her on the stage at the Hard Rock Hotel."Darcy's purpose as a coach was to impact lives and develop strong character," said Christina during the awards show that left few dry eyes for those in attendance and watching on television. "His legacy is far more than what was recorded on the stats sheets. It's recorded by the lives and communities that are better off for having Darcy in them."
In Haugan's memory, the NHL Foundation donated $10,000 to the Saskatchewan Brain Injury Association, a charity that was important to him.
Video: Humboldt Broncos honored at NHL Awards
Two days later at the NHL Draft in Dallas, the Humboldt Broncos received the E.J. McGuire Award of Excellence. Broncos team president Kevin Garinger accepted the honor that is given annually by the league "to the candidate who exemplifies commitment to excellence through strength of character, competitiveness and athleticism."
"The Humboldt Broncos have always been committed to showing leadership and excellence in all things on and off the ice," said Garinger. "Since the unthinkable tragedy that devastated our organization, those efforts have been amplified. However, as we rebuild, we could not be where we are today without the people and organizations from all over the world which have supported us, including the NHL. To them we say, we hear you, we feel your love, and we are truly humbled and grateful."
The planned events and tributes since the accident occurred were all meant to help the families, billet families, the team and city heal from that April evening.
Every person affected by the tragedy grieves in their own way, but for Humboldt, maybe one of the biggest parts of the recovery process came with the Broncos returning for the 2018-19 season.
Soon after the incident, it was announced that the Broncos would be rebuilt and retake the ice for the upcoming campaign. This year's roster includes two players that survived the accident, Brayden Camrud and Derek Patter, both of whom battled back from their own injuries to play opening night.
On Sept. 12, the Broncos began their regular season at home against Nipawin in a game that was televised commercial-free in North America. Humboldt lost 2-1, but the final score hardly mattered for the team and community. Following the game, there was a ceremony unveiling 29 banners for the victims of the crash.
A week later, Humboldt picked up its first win of the season.
"Every little bit of support helped them make the decision that they wanted to put a team back on the ice this fall," says Bednar. "I'm sure glad they did. I think the fans and the city of Humboldt want to see that, and I think the world is paying close attention because of what these kids went through and how strong they are. They are an inspiring group."
Through the darkest days, the hockey community stood beside them and did what they could for the Humboldt Broncos. In turn, the survivors, the team and the city showed Canada, the U.S. and the world what it is to be Humboldt Strong.