It was the morning of the biggest game of the year for the Colorado Avalanche, but it was also a day where the hockey world was reminded that there is more to the sport than the games themselves.
Hockey plays an important part in many people's lives, but there is a lot more to it than trying to put a vulcanized piece of rubber into a net at blazing speeds on ice. The sport develops bonds that can last a lifetime. From peewees to adult rec leagues to the National Hockey League, the game creates a unique camaraderie for players and fans alike.
So on April 7 as the Avalanche prepared to face the St. Louis Blues in the final contest of the regular season and with a playoff spot on the line, the hockey community was mourning the loss of some of their own from the previous night.
Nearly a thousand miles north of Colorado on the Canadian plains of Saskatchewan, a city was grieving. The Humboldt Broncos were on their way to Nipawin for Game 5 of their playoff series in the Saskatchewan Jr. Hockey League, but the team never made it as an accident with their team bus and a truck killed 16 people on the club and critically injured 13 others. Among those that died included players, support staff and coach Darcy Haugan.
Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar spent a large amount of his childhood in Humboldt while following his father, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police Officer, around the province. He considers the city his hometown and the Broncos were his team.
"Having grown up in rural Saskatchewan, hockey is part of the way of life there, and in Humboldt especially," said Bednar. "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. When something like this happens, it hits real close to home for a bunch of different communities throughout Saskatchewan and obviously around the world."
Video: Avs coach Jared Bednar on the support for Humboldt
As a young player, Bednar dreamed about wearing the Broncos' green and gold and achieved it before playing three years in the Western Hockey League and nine more in the pro ranks.
The morning following the accident, Bednar's focus was two-fold. First, on Colorado's game against St. Louis with the winner going to the postseason, and second, on his community back on the Canadian prairie.
"That's my hometown," Bednar said prior to the biggest game of the year for the Avalanche. "I grew up in Humboldt. My dad was stationed there twice. The bulk of my childhood was in that city. I grew up as a young guy dreaming to play 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."
The tragedy also hit Bednar on a more personal level.
One of Bednar's friends is the father of goalie Jacob Wassermann, who is now paralyzed from the waist down from the accident. Wassermann was in good spirits when he attended the 2018 NHL Awards with his surviving teammates and was supporting Bednar at the occasion while he was nominated for the Jack Adams Award as the league's coach of the year.
Bednar has made several trips to Humboldt since the accident, but it was in the days following Colorado's win over St. Louis in the season finale that he started to have the idea of doing something more to help those affected by the tragedy.
Bednar continued to stay focused on the Avs' run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs during that time, but he kept his hometown in his thoughts and heart. It was after the season when he traveled to Humboldt for the Country Thunder tribute concert that he decided a memorial golf tournament would be a good way to raise money and give back to the team and city that gave him so much.
"I got talking and just watching the members of the NHLPA and current players, former players all get together and seeing their support and how they came together to make different events happen," Bednar recalled while attending the charity concert featuring Dallas Smith, Brett Kissel and other country musicians.
Bednar worked with Humboldt natives Brian Munz--a radio broadcaster for the Winnipeg Jets--and Laurie Warford to begin the Humboldt Broncos Memorial Golf Tournament. The inaugural event takes place this Saturday at the Humboldt Golf Club. The tournament sold out hours after tickets went on sale on June 1.
"We got the three of us together and kind of hit the ground running and got this thing together," Bednar said. "Aug. 18 it is going to happen, and we're pretty happy and I think it's all coming together pretty nicely… I think it should be a great event and should be a good time for the community, and hopefully we can raise some money for the team as well."
The event will also include prizes and a silent auction, with the money donated going to help those affected by the tragedy. Among the items that have been contributed include NHL player-signed jerseys and sticks, as well as one of the suits worn by Don Cherry during a Coach's Corner segment on Hockey Night In Canada.
While creating and executing an outing like this can be challenging, doing it for his city was an easy decision for Bednar.
"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 Avalanche bench boss doesn't view this as a one-time occasion either.
"The tournament is the Humboldt Broncos Memorial Golf Tournament," he said. "So 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 and 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.
"We want to see what we can do there, and I want to get back there every year and help run it and try and continue it, so it's an ongoing event that can help the team and the community any way they see fit to use some the funds that we help raise."
The tournament will be the beginning of a week-long remembrance of those who lost their lives while continuing to help heal the community with the sport that it loves. There will be a special on-ice event the following weekend set up by the NHL and the NHL Players' Association, and St. Louis Blues forward and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, native Brayden Schenn is helping put together a clinic that will include several other NHL players.
The Stanley Cup will be making an appearance as well. Chandler Stephenson, also from nearby Saskatoon, helped the Washington Capitals win its first championship last season, and he will spend his day with the cup with the people of Humboldt.
Bednar is glad that the league and the NHLPA are getting together to help support the city.
"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."Hockey is a global sport, but it is also not as big as it sometimes seems. Since that dark day in April, an outpouring of support for the city and the Broncos have come in from across North America, Europe and from every corner of the planet where pucks are shot into nets. More than $15 million were donated from 80 countries through GoFundMe, and members of the hockey community from around the world have done a small but meaningful tribute by placing hockey sticks outside their front doors.
"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."
It should be a great week and one that the people of Humboldt will hopefully never forget. Just like those 16 lives that were taken too early.