The population of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, is 4,872, according to the 2016 census. That means four Humboldts can fit into one NHL arena, and maybe have a few seats left over.
The capacity of the rink where the Broncos play is 1,854, which means more than a third of the town’s population is at any given hockey game. There is roughly one seat in that arena for every annual hour of sunshine in Humboldt (1,976). And it’s not an exaggeration to say towns like Humboldt rely on hockey to provide sunshine when there is none.
“The hockey teams are the social fabric,” says Canadian Junior Hockey League president Brent Ladds. “They get you through the long, hard winters.”
Humboldt’s league voted unanimously to continue with its postseason. It was a painful choice but it will honor the lost no matter what.
Saskatchewan is a prairie province, population of only about 1 million, and its towns, with names like Porcupine Plain and Carrot River, are far apart. Every community is isolated geographically, but in a way that brings people much closer. There is a common culture, and hockey is central to it.
On Humboldt’s town website, the menu on the right side has “Humboldt Broncos” listed above “Maps” and “Places of Worship.”
So there’s no way to describe the void now, after 15 were killed in a Humboldt team bus crash last Friday. A 16th victim, team trainer Dayna Brons, died Wednesday afternoon from injuries, the CBC reported. The route that ended in tragedy is one that everyone in the town knows, Highway 35, and so many hockey fans, players, scouts and family members have taken that trip over the years. Charlie’s Charters, the company that transported the Humboldt players, is also the official carrier of five other area hockey teams, including Friday’s opponent, the Nipawin Hawks. Those routes are small roads compared to national highways, but they are major arteries across Canada. The Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid, one of the brightest stars in the hockey world, said, “Everyone has been on the bus before.”
The bus rides are long and timeless. The two-hour ride from Humboldt to Nipawin, where the Broncos were on the way to play Friday, doesn’t change with technology or construction. “The towns haven’t moved,” Ladds says. “The trips haven’t gotten any shorter.”
Some of the items recovered from the crash site, like a “Slapshot” DVD, a Tim Horton’s cup sleeve, and playing cards, could have been on that bus a decade ago. Movies, games and coffee all help pass the time. The bus is a cocoon; you take your first trip at around age 16 and the nights and years teach you a lot.
These days everything is connected through Wi-Fi, but the trips home are still late at night and the only conversation that can be had is often with a teammate or coach. It’s not like a big city, where the trip is 30 minutes or less. There is time to go over a game, or to seek advice, or to vent. The buzz of winning or the bitterness of losing lasts a little longer, and it bonds a little more.
“When you go straight home, you’re not ready to go to sleep right away,” says Ladds. “It’s 11, or 11:30 at night, then you’ve got a three-hour bus ride. Half of that is talking about the game, what happened, what didn’t happen.” Those conversations and moments linger, sometimes for decades. People who grow up on the prairie are usually not chatterboxes. They are known for being humble and earnest. So a longer talk can have extra weight, extra meaning. Ladds’ only mirth in a phone interview about the Humboldt tragedy came when he was asked to name his favorite times from his own bus rides.
“That we can print?” he laughed. “No.”
Many of the players on junior hockey teams are not local kids. They come to a town like Humboldt, where they often go to school and get housed by area families. Those hosts care for the players as their own, and make the same trips that the busses take. For players who are still in their teens, this is a step into adulthood and a last step of childhood. Canadian junior hockey is a blend in that way: a little bit of “Friday Night Lights” and a little bit of college football Saturdays. It’s exciting and scary and transformative. The bus rides are familiar when life can be unfamiliar. It’s another locker room, another den, another home.
“Part of the journey as a hockey player is the ride to the rink and the ride home,” tweeted Islanders star John Tavares. “Those moments are always a time of anticipation and reflection. Some of the best memories I have [are] riding the bus in Junior with my teammates.”
Some players go on to careers elsewhere. A few move to the States for college. Some have a next professional stop in their future. For others, though, Humboldt is a place they grow to love and stay. The town becomes a part of who they are. The roadways link the past and the future. There are always younger players to meet, older stories to tell.
But how do you talk about what happened last week? How do you take the next bus ride, play the next game? It seems impossible to continue with the season and impossible not to. The rink is there for a reason, and the roadway is there for a reason. Those reasons are both insignificant and more important than ever.
The bus carrying the Humboldt players wasn’t far from its destination. It was almost time to park and play. The Broncos needed to win on Friday to extend their playoff semifinals. Maybe with a couple of breaks or good goaltending, they could swing the series back in their favor. Win or lose, though, there was an entire town of people waiting for them to come home.
That town will wait for them always.
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