In every small town in Canada there is a place that everyone knows.
Wherever that place might be, it is, in a metaphorical sense, the center of the town. It’s where you spend your Friday nights, your Saturday mornings. It’s where your dad plays poker with his buddies on weeknights, where your mom brings her homemade cookies for everyone to try — it’s where you want to be.
That place is the hockey rink. It has only a few hundred seats and just the one sheet of ice. It’s unremarkable, but also irreplaceable. No matter where you wind up sleeping after you leave, that building is your real home.
Humboldt, Saskatchewan, has a rink just like this. I skated on it — with a Bronco on my chest — 33 years ago. It’s no different than the thousands upon thousands of other rinks that hold Canada together, like stitches on a baseball.
A few weeks ago, on the night of April 6, I was in the press box at the United Center in Chicago for the Blues-Blackhawks game. I was preparing to do color for the St. Louis radio broadcast when Reid Simpson, who I know from our time in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, texted me. All he wrote was: “Do you know what happened?”
I hopped on Twitter and saw the news about a bus crash involving the Broncos. My heart fell right out of my chest.
I thought of my family. I have three boys. They all play hockey. I texted them right away.
“I just want you to know how happy you guys make me. And I love you more than anything — more than I can explain.”
Liam Richards/CP/AP Images
They all responded. They understood. More news started to flood in about the severity of the accident. Multiple casualties.
And that’s when I thought of the parents. I thought of the parents who sent text messages — like the one I sent — to their children who were on that bus. I thought of the parents who were waiting by the phone for a text or call. I thought of the parents who would have to face the unimaginable task of laying their child to rest for a final time.
I can’t … I can’t even fathom what that night was like for them. It broke me. Because even though I hadn’t met any of the players, I knew them. If you are from a small town in Canada, you know them. If you rode a bus to play hockey, you know them. If you love the game, you know them.
Because at some point in our lives, most Canadians were them — in one way or another. And for me, I actually was. In the mid-’80s I lived with a billet family just outside Humboldt for a year while I played for the Broncos. They compete a step below major junior hockey in Canada, but in a town like that … man, we felt like we were playing in the NHL. I remember being on Main Street in the spring, right around playoff time. And everyone — and I mean everyone — was wishing us luck, giving us high fives, offering us some advice.
Humboldt is that type of place, with that kind of people.
I wanted to take some time before I wrote this. What happened … I mean, what can you really even say? There aren’t enough words — and there aren’t enough hugs — to heal the people of Humboldt.
I want to share some stories about the great province of Saskatchewan, and I want to make sure we remember the 16 people who lost their lives. When something terrible happens in Canada … it happens to all of us. We’re a big country, but we’re smaller than you think. And there’s connective tissue that binds us together: hockey.
I grew up in Porcupine Plain, about two hours northeast of Humboldt. Our rink was exactly 374 steps from my Grandma’s house. I know this because every time my parents let me stay at her place, I would walk to the rink before school started. I’d leave the house around 7 a.m., walk past the two big ditches by the grain elevators, cross the railroad tracks and sneak into the rink through a tiny gap by the snow machine. The sun would just be coming up, and I’d play inside in the dark until it rose enough for the light to shine through the windows. I’d finish up right before the old folks got there for curling.
My dad built that rink in 1967, the same year I was born. It was where I first started to chase my dreams. I wanted to be like the great NHL players who came out of Saskatchewan: Gordie Howe, Bryan Trottier, Bernie Federko … if you’re from this province, those are your icons. They hold a special place in people’s hearts. Everyone, from the mayor to the gas-station attendant, has a story about a great player who came from their town. They’ll tell you about how they fixed his flat tire one day or served him pancakes when he was in juniors. For so many of these towns, these hockey players are the very best of us — they are our gift to the world. So we cherish them. We nourish them and try to give them the best opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the immortals.
I was one of those boys. And I will never forget the sacrifices the people of Humboldt made for me. I billeted there with the family of Larry and Janette Heinz, who welcomed me into their home and treated me like one of their own children. The billet family is really one of the most beautiful things about Canada. So many parents here send their sons and daughters thousands of kilometers across the country — usually for the first time — to live with another family. And the billet families, who often have kids of their own, welcome in these young hockey players with open arms. They do everything for those players. And the bond that’s built between a billet family and a player is so strong and impactful.
On April 6, I thought of those families, too. To lose a child that another family has trusted you to take into your home … I can’t imagine. They need our support, too.
As does all of Humboldt. When I played there in 1984–85, I remember being amazed that 1,500 people would come to our games. The population of the town was only around 4,000, but the rink would be packed on most nights. This accident has an affect on all of those people. The butcher who gives the boys their sandwiches at half off because he knows they’re on a tight budget, the teachers who spend time after school with players who had to miss class for a game … they all feel a similar heartbreak.
They were all Broncos.
And now the entire hockey community is, too.
Two weeks ago, the St. Louis Blues held a roast for Darren Pang. I’ve known Panger for a long, long time, and it was great night. Toward the end I went onstage with Kelly Taylor, a comedian and a good friend of mine, to talk about what had happened in Humboldt and how we could help. Both of us could only get out a few words before we broke down. A few minutes later, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Many of the people there hadn’t even been to Saskatchewan, but they understood.
That’s the message I’m trying to get across — the hockey world understands. And it’s here for you, Humboldt.
When people ask me about my experience in junior hockey, I tell them the same thing every time: “It’s a communal buy.” In Humboldt, everyone from Mayor Rob Muench to the people who worked the concessions at Elgar Petersen Arena own some part of the Broncos’ success. It’s on us, the hockey community, to now continue to help the people of Humboldt. Because we’re part of a larger family, and our family lost 16 great members.
On Saturday, April 7, the morning after the crash, I woke up to messages from Hayley Wickenheiser, Colby Armstrong and a few others about an idea to honor those 16. We contacted Troy Vollhoffer — a Canadian entrepreneur who is from Saskatchewan, played for the Saskatoon Blades and has done so much to give back to our province — and he reached out to a bunch of country music stars. With them we formed a plan to throw a concert on April 27 in Saskatoon. Along with it, we’re also going to have an auction of NHL jerseys of current and former players. All proceeds from the concert and the auction will be donated to the families affected by the tragedy.
Liam Richards/CP/AP Images
The incredible GoFundMe page for this event has already raised a huge amount of money. We hope this concert can bring some smiles and laughter to families who have gone through the unimaginable.
The mark that Humboldt, the hockey community, and Saskatchewan has left on me is a huge part of a who I am today. My career in the NHL, my family and the experiences I’ve had … they can all be tied to places in small towns. Those stories are for a different article. This story is for Humboldt.
We are all thinking about you.
We won’t forget.
We are all Broncos.
To learn more about the Humboldt Broncos Tribute Concert Auction, and to take part, please click here.