MONTREAL - After Cale Fleury and the Regina Pats were eliminated from the WHL playoffs on April 2, they were given one week off to enjoy some downtime before getting their Memorial Cup prep work underway.
The 19-year-old defenseman - who was born in Regina, but raised 200 km southeast of the provincial capital in Carlyle - made his way to Calgary to visit his parents, John and Sandy.
It was there that Fleury learned about the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy that occurred on April 6, which ultimately claimed 16 lives and left many others injured.
"My mom broke the news to me. It was pretty sad. Obviously, she was thinking about her kids, who are on the bus all the time," said Fleury, whose older brother, Haydn, was a former standout with the WHL's Red Deer Rebels and is a member of the Carolina Hurricanes' D corps. "I know a lot of families from my team feel the same way. It could have been any team in the junior leagues."
Fleury knows several members of the Broncos involved in the incident, including one who passed away - right-winger Evan Thomas.
"I saw him at a couple of training camps in Kootenay [where Fleury used to play before being dealt to Regina last November]. I still have three friends that are recovering right now," explained Fleury, who was selected in the third round, 87th overall, by the Canadiens last June. "We have a lot of guys who have close friends on that team. We even had a goalie [in Regina], Jacob Wasserman, who was on the bus as well. A lot of the guys went to the hospital in Saskatoon to see some of their friends."
On April 27, the Pats headed to the Humboldt Broncos Tribute Concert in Saskatoon to show their support for the victims and their families, whom they think about constantly.
"You're kind of reminded about it a little every day," mentioned Fleury. "Some guys have their shirts with the Humboldt Broncos logo. They wear them to workouts. It would be great to bring the Memorial Cup back to Saskatchewan."
That hasn't happened in quite a while, with the Swift Current Broncos being the last Saskatchewan-based franchise to hoist the prestigious trophy back in 1989.
The Pats, who are hosting the 100th playing of the annual tournament, begin their Memorial Cup quest next Friday night at the Brandt Centre.
It will mark their first game in six-plus weeks. That, however, isn't cause for concern, according to the young rearguard.
"It isn't a terrible thing. We should be one of the most conditioned teams there, if not the most conditioned team," said Fleury, before detailing the Pats' training regimen since falling to the Broncos in seven games in Round 1. "Right now, we're down to one practice each day and a workout usually. But, it was two skates a day, and we'd have skills sessions, too. There were also "battle practices" with a lot of battle drills and a lot of conditioning involved. Then, in workouts, we'd usually have lower-body one day, upper-body one day or conditioning."
After a prolonged wait, Fleury and the rest of head coach John Paddock's contingent will soon put all of that hard work to the test.
Needless to say, the four-year WHL veteran is good to go and eager to compete on junior hockey's biggest stage.
"My game really needs to be focused on defense first. I'm a pretty physical guy, too. I'd like to throw some hits, and hopefully join in offensively when I can," noted Fleury, who amassed six goals and 41 points in 51 regular-season games for Regina after the trade. "It's going to be a pretty electric building. Even just in the first round of the playoffs, we sold out every home game, or close to it. We have a lot of great fans and they're excited for this, too."
It was only two years ago that Cale watched Haydn play in the Memorial Cup, with the Rebels serving as the host club as well.
Lessons learned are certainly coming back into focus right now with puck drop on the horizon.
"Just watching my brother's team go through it, you've got to focus on every game. It doesn't really matter who you're playing. Brandon was the team that won the WHL title that year and they eliminated Brandon," said Fleury, who observed the future NHL rearguard reach the semi-finals, where the Rebels fell to the QMJHL's Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. "Anybody can beat anybody on any given night."
While it remains to be seen how far the Pats will fare, one thing is certain - the entire city is behind them every step of the way.
"Every time we go out as a team, or the guys go out for lunch, people come by and wish us good luck," concluded Fleury, who will have supporters aplenty in the stands all tournament long. "We're pretty excited to have it here in Regina."
Photo Credit: Keith Hershmiller