HUMBOLDT, SASK.—“Anything with Hollandaise sauce.”
That’s what this new crop of Broncos boys have opted for during their first pre-game meal of the season, server Taylor Hayward says with a laugh. Last year’s Humboldt squad always went for eggs Benedict before the game, so the choice brings a semblance of normalcy to Johnny’s Bistro on Wednesday.
“We haven’t had this many boys in here in months,” Hayward says after dropping off the meal. She’s been at this Humboldt mainstay for the last three years, serving a Broncos junior hockey team each season.
The new incarnation has picked up where the previous one left off. They’re set to begin their 2018-19 regular season Wednesday night against the visiting Nipawin Hawks.
Last season’s team had its season cut short, just before the junior hockey league final, decimated by a fatal bus crash that took 16 lives in early April. Only two of the 13 survivors from that squad are lacing up the skates this year.
Led by those two — Brayden Camrud and Derek Patter — along with new head coach Nathan Oystrick, the Broncos’ big day is here.
What they’re expected to do is start this season anew. What they’re hoping to do is heal — themselves and maybe this community.
Hayward thinks that process has started, as least based on what she sees at the diner.
“It was good vibes to come back into, for sure. … It felt like nothing changed,” she says. “They’re all still yelling across tables at each other and drinking more water than we can keep up with … and extra Hollandaise sauce.”
But despite new-found laughter and joy, old pains still linger. She pauses to hold back tears when thinking about last year’s players.
Wednesday night’s game, she hopes, will give this community a fresh start.
“A lot of people are waiting for that, so hopefully that’s what this game does. I think a lot of people are waiting for that closure.”
Hayward’s boss, the owner of Johnny’s, wasn’t much for words as she busily tended to the diner’s bar Wednesday. It’s quieter here, the dim lights presenting a sombre contrast to Johnny’s loud main dining area.
Carla Clement billeted three of last year’s Broncos: Bryce Fiske, Stephen Wack and Kaleb Dahlgren. Wack was one of the 16 who died in the bus crash.
“It’s going to be an emotional night,” she says, wearing a determined look on her face. “I’m serving the families of last year’s team.”
Clement and the diner’s staff will be prepping and serving food to those 29 families in the convention hall adjacent to Humboldt’s Elgar Petersen Arena.
“Everyone’s busy getting ready for tonight,” she says.
On Wednesday evening, about two hours before puck-drop, fans and supporters started filling the arena’s main lobby, waiting to get to their seats.
Joey Widaiko and his son Regan sat among the buzzing crowd. They were at the last game, the one the previous year’s Broncos played here: a triple-overtime thriller that Nipawin won 6-5.
“I hope it’s just as loud today, too,” Regan says, smiling as he recalled the April 4 game.
The crash happened two days later.
“Emotions are going to be high here,” his father says. “(The game) will bring some closure.”
His young son isn’t sure how he wants this new season to turn out. Another Broncos’ playoff run would be good, but another one with intense overtime play “would be weird,” he says.
His favourite player was goalie Parker Tobin, another Bronco whose life was cut short. Regan’s not yet sure who his favourite player will be this year.
Crash survivor Dahlgren chose to come to the game, even though some of his former teammates couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
“I think it’s very important for me to be here tonight to honour those 16 victims that can’t be here and other people as well involved in the bus accident that can’t be here,” Dahlgren says.
As for this new Broncos team, he told them to “play their hearts out.”
“I think it means everything for this team to be back to playing hockey again,” he says.
Now at York University, he says he’s moving on, ready to start as a member of that school’s Lions hockey team.
Wednesday night is one step in the healing process, he says.
“Playing tonight definitely helps heals the wounds, but it won’t heal everything.”
As the Broncos stood on the ice at Humboldt’s Elgar Petersen Arena, minutes before puck-drop, they were joined by some of the survivors of the crash, former players from last year’s team.
The eight former players lined up beside new Broncos goalie Dane Dow; they were sombre and stood there with stoic faces.
None of them smiled or laughed. Some them cried sniffled, wiping their noses with their shirt sleeves.
As public address announcer Brian Munz asked for a moment of silence, former Bronco Tyler Smith couldn’t take it.
He squatted down, took off his ball cap and buried his head in his hands.
The arena was dead-silent, packed to the top with loving fans of the Broncos.
And Smith wasn’t alone.
His old teammate, Dahlgren, reached over, put his hand on his buddy’s shoulder and let him know he was there.
Soon after, the referee dropped the puck at centre ice.
And the Hawks and the Broncos skated on.
Evan Radford is a reporter/photographer for StarMetro Calgary. Follow him on Twitter: @EvanRadford