Forever a Bronco

Courtesy of Kaleb Dahlgren

I don’t remember the moment my life changed.

There is only before and after.

On April 6, 2018, I was on a bus. I was with my friends, my teammates — my family. Not by blood. But all of us on that bus? We were family. No doubt about that. And we were on our way to Nipawin for Game 5 of our SJHL playoff series. The thing you need to know about the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League is that it’s just a step below major junior. But lots of guys choose to play in the SJHL to preserve their scholarship eligibility in the U.S. If you play major junior, you have to stay in Canada if you want your education covered, cutting your options for college hockey by more than half. Yes, the league is one step down, and going straight to pro from the SJHL is rare, but we were all there because of a deep love of the game. You don’t ride buses for miles in the freezing cold in the middle of Sask if you don’t love hockey. And that’s what everyone — every single person — on that bus had in common.

Myself included.

Before my life changed — before our lives changed — I was just a guy who loved hockey.

One of my fondest memories is of being a kid inside my family’s basement in our house in Saskatoon. It was all concrete. And, wow, did I ever love to rollerblade. I’d dim the lights, turn on this really old disco-ball-light I had, put on a strobe light, crank up some tunes, and strap on my blades. Then, in my best Bob Cole voice, I’d announce my entrance into the game that I was playing all alone. I’d go coast-to-coast deking imaginary defenders, rippin’ the puck and scoring on the empty net, then celebrate like I’d beaten the goalie high glove in overtime to win the game. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many hours I spent down there. I’d come home from school, head straight for the basement, come up for supper, and then go back down to shoot more pucks.

In that basement, I learned to dream.

I don’t know how to explain this but, to me, hockey is about much more than just being the best or competing at the highest level, or any of those things. Of course I strived to play at the highest level growing up and I was fortunate enough to achieve that goal. But when I was 11, I learned that there was pro hockey in Europe. And that just struck a chord with me. I mean, how cool is it that this sport can take you all over the planet?

A year later I toured UND’s Ralph Engelstad Arena and fell in love with college hockey. The idea of getting an education while playing elite-level hockey excited me like no other. So I just sort of imagined this world for myself where I would go to a great school and then go overseas and play the game professionally in all these unique places. And in those places, I pictured myself meeting people who would introduce me to new cultures, sights, and experiences. Maybe it was a naive dream, or not a typical one for an 11 year old, but I just saw hockey in a little different way than some of my friends. Not as a lifelong career, but as a way to get things I otherwise never would.

And that’s how I ended up in the most important place in my career at that time.

Humboldt, Saskatchewan. 

Kaleb Dahlgren | Humboldt Broncos
Liam Richards/Electric Umbrella

I think of April 6 as the day everything changed.… But also, when I try to describe what makes Humboldt so incredible, I just picture that day. 

We were down 3–1 in our series to Nipawin, and Game 5 was, obviously, going to be critical. We had blown the lead in two of those losses, so the series could well have been 3–1 for us. As we pulled our bruised bodies together to fight another day in the SJHL playoffs, there was just this amazing vibe around town. A bunch of us players did our normal routines: pregame skate, head over to Johnny’s Bistro over on 9th, where we’d get a discount on game days and guys would have their go-to game day brunches. Everyone there was wishing us well and getting us hyped for the game.

I remember lots about that day, but it also was just a regular game day. On our way out of town — when everyone was on the bus — our coach, Darcy Haugan, told us we were making a quick pit stop. His wife, Christina, had made us some pregame pasta for the road. So we popped by their house, Coach Darcy ran in and grabbed the food and a few other things, and then we hit the road.

That right there is what our team was about: Community. Our team was built and supported by the Humboldt community in the ’70’s, and through each generation of Broncos, we have remained a part of this community.

To live in Humboldt, in a way, is to be from Humboldt.

We all felt that — when we put on that Broncos sweater — we were representing everyone who lived there and all of the alumni who suited up with the same logo on the front.

That’s the pride we were carrying with us up to Nipawin.

I remember being on the bus on April 6.

And then I remember waking up in the hospital mid-afternoon on April 11.

Somewhere in between, everything changed forever.

Those first few hours — even those first few days — were full of blurry, terrifying and sad moments. When I was told that there had been a bus crash … I just couldn’t comprehend it at all.

Is this a dream?

Is this a hospital?

Did we win our game tonight?

I couldn’t wrap my head around what I was hearing. There was a disconnect in my mind, like I was trying my best to not believe it. What I remembered — what I knew about my life — there was a gap now. And while my parents were able to come to terms with it, and while the country learned of the crash, I still couldn’t put it all together.

I lost four days of memory from the injuries I suffered and the post-traumatic amnesia I was going through. Only after a few weeks had passed that the extent of my injuries became clear: I had suffered a traumatic brain injury, a fractured neck and nerve damage, a fractured back, a fractured skull with a puncture wound, and partial degloving of the right side of my head. There was blood behind my right eardrum and a large blood clot in my left forearm. And later, I’d discover that my head had actually increased in size. I was one hat size larger, which I remain to this day.

I have had to learn and relearn about the tragedy multiple times. My brain injury and the pain medication turned me into a different person — making it really difficult for me to be present, to be aware.

After I had finally snapped out of my amnesia, my dad broke the news to me that his phone was buzzing almost constantly when he was at my hospital bed early on. He was talking to people checking up on me — family, friends, old coaches. He explained how other parents began calling him and asking if their son made it to the hospital.

“No, I’m sorry,” Dad had to keep saying. “Your son is not here.”

I still have no recollection of hearing these phone calls or being in the room, but I was present for these brutal calls.

“No, I’m sorry,” Dad had to keep saying. “Your son is not here.”

Kaleb Dahlgren

As the days passed, I started to learn more and more about what had happened — what we had been through.

Our bus had crashed 20 minutes south of Nipawin. Many of my friends didn’t make it. And it wasn’t until I got to use a new phone my parents had bought for me that it all hit me.

I saw the hashtag #HumboldStrong. It was like the whole world knew. I started to see the names of so many of my friends — my family — who weren’t here anymore. I saw that there were others in critical condition, too. I was in my hospital bed, scrolling through my phone and I was just sobbing. I felt so … I just felt so alone. I tried texting my roommate, Stephen. As I was typing the message, it hit me that he wouldn’t reply. That he was gone. I hovered my thumb over the SEND button and I just thought, Why?

Why them?

Why am I still here?

I felt survivor’s guilt almost immediately. It didn’t make sense to me why I was still alive — I was no different from any of those who had died. But you know what I realized? There is no reason any of this happened. It doesn’t have to make sense. It never will. It’s horrible and heartbreaking and every day — every day — I wish I could go back in time and stop it from happening.

But there was no reason why. I get that now and I have accepted that. I’m just here, alive. That’s all there is to it. And all I can do is make the most of the life I have left. In a weird way, I understood that pretty quickly in the hospital. What I told my parents from my bed that week is what I try to live up to now, three years later.

I told them that I wanted to live big for those who are not here anymore. 

I wanted to make the most out of my life because I know — I know — that they would have done the same.

I wanted to honor them every day with how I acted, how I treated others. With how I lived.

I wanted to live big.

For Tyler Bieber. 

For Logan Boulet. 

For Dayna Brons.

For Mark Cross. 

For Glen Doerksen.

For Darcy Haugan.

For Adam Herold.

For Brody Hinz.

For Logan Hunter.

For Jaxon Joseph.

For Jacob Leicht.

For Conner Lukan.

For Logan Schatz.

For Evan Thomas.

For Parker Tobin.

For Stephen Wack. 

Kymber Rae/AFP via Getty Images

All I can do in this life is try to live up to the legacies they left behind and carry a piece of them with me. 

When I first started to talk about what I had been through in my life before and after the crash, I was just completely blown away by the responses I’d get. Dozens of people told me that I should write a book and how much of an impact it could make. I laughed it off and didn’t believe them. I quickly realized that with this circumstance I was dealt, I was given a platform, whether I wanted it or not. What I did with it was up to me, so I wanted to spread my positivity and try to turn this negative situation into something that can make a positive difference in other people’s lives — just like so many others have done from this tragedy too.

People would reach out and tell me that my experience — and the feelings I went through during the adversity in my life — were similar to something traumatic they had gone through, and that hearing me speak about it brought them a little bit of peace or hope. I really had no idea that talking about these things, sharing with another, could have this sort of impact. One person literally told me that hearing my life story saved their life. That was powerful. 

I noticed, too, as I was talking with more people and giving back to various charities … it was assisting in my healing process. I realize that what happened on April 6 is a part of my life, but I can’t let it define me. And the more I connected with people giving back and being there for them through the challenges in their life, the more I began to find myself again. Giving back truly fuels my soul!

That’s the underlying reason why I decided to write a book.

I wanted to help others. I wanted to heal. I wanted to do my best to live big.

All I can do in this life is try to live up to the legacies they left behind.

Kaleb Dahlgren

I also wanted to use it as a chance to give thanks to the many selfless people who have helped me throughout all the crossroads in my life — especially on April 6 and the days following. From the hospital staff, to all the families and friends, to strangers who put a hockey stick on their porch or a post of support on the Internet. It took a team effort to get me where I am today and shape me into the person I am. I’m so thankful to all of you who have been there for me when I needed it the most.

One day when I was heavily debating whether I should take on this project, I was sitting in lecture. My professor said, “If you want to make a difference in this world, it starts with you!” 

And that’s when it hit me. I had the ability to make a positive impact on other people's lives through sharing my story. First, I wanted to do it with my words. I wanted to write about topics that aren’t discussed often when we talk about trauma. Of course, there’s family, resilience and hope in there — but I also talk about death in a way that might make some uncomfortable. 

I wanted my stories where I was tested mentally, physically, and emotionally to connect with those who have been through similar situations in their lives and let them know that it’s completely all right to feel guilty, to feel lost — to feel completely alone. Hopefully they are able to find solace in these feelings and take away something that they can apply into their life after reading the book.

And most importantly, I wanted to make sure awareness was raised and that a portion of the proceeds of my book would go towards the people who helped save lives from the bus: STARS. The Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service that operates in the Prairies. It’s a nonprofit, non government-funded organization that specializes in remote air rescues in rural areas. They were there to airlift so many of us on April 6, and without them, things could have been much worse. What they did that night is what they do every single day: Saved lives. We were just one of the hundreds of yearly missions they undertake. And I think there is nothing more powerful than a second chance at life. STARS relies completely on donations to fund their rescues. 

They were there to support us, so now I want to return the favour and support them as best as I can.

Because I know my story is just one of 29 from that day. And all I can hope is that it brings some good into the world. 

#HumboldtStrong, forever.