Kaleb Dahlgren doesn’t remember the accident. On Friday, April 6, 2018, he was sitting in his regular seat near the back of the bus as he and his Humboldt Broncos teammates made their way to Nipawin to play game six in their Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoff series with the rival Hawks. They never made it to the rink.
As their team bus neared Nipawin it collided with a semi-trailer that had gone through a stop sign at a level crossing in the middle of the prairie wheat belt. The impact of the crash tore the bus apart. Sixteen people were killed. Another 13 were seriously injured, including Dahlgren who suffered several fractures, strains, and a severe traumatic brain injury.
(Kaleb Dahlgren holds a copy of his book “Crossroads.” Photo courtesy of Kaleb Dahlgren)
Dahlgren spoke recently at the Algonquin College Pembroke Campus virtual speaker series about his life and his new book, entitled “Crossroads,” which includes a poignant four-page section that grips the reader because of what isn’t written. The four pages are blank. The only thing that is written is the date- April 7, April 8, April 9 and April 10. It wasn’t until April 11th that Dahlgren awakened from his state of being in post-traumatic amnesia.
Dahlgren writes, “I opened my eyes and everything was white. This is a hospital. Something is wrong.”
Dahlgren had no idea why he was in the hospital, but his first thoughts were that he had been badly injured in the game in Nipawin. It wasn’t until he was well enough to speak to his parents and start reading his text messages and social media feeds that he realized the magnitude of the accident he had been involved in.
(Kaleb Dahlgren stands at the intersection where he survived a horrific collision between the Humboldt Broncos team bus and a semi-trailer on April 6, 2018. Photo courtesy of Liam Richards-Electric Umbrella.)
What Dahlgren has accomplished since the accident is nothing short of extraordinary. Only two months after the crash, he was skating again, leaving doctors at a loss to explain how he was able to function given the seriousness of his brain injury. He followed their guidance, using cognitive and physical exercises to strengthen his brain and body, but they still couldn’t comprehend his remarkable recovery.
Dahlgren writes that his family doctor, Doctor Richard Leakos, told his parents, “With Kaleb’s injuries he shouldn’t be able to function like this. It’s a miracle.”
By the fall of 2018, Dahlgren was enrolled at York University where he had previously agreed in February of 2018, just a few weeks before the accident, to a scholarship to study and play hockey. He practiced with the team, but never played in any games. The risk was just too great and so he reluctantly retired from playing. During his time at York, he continued to put in as much effort into his academic studies as he did when he played the game he loved, and now he has a degree under his belt and is studying to become a chiropractor.
But, the young man who has battled type 1 diabetes since he was four years old, wasn’t done. He decided to write a book, a very personal memoir that shares intimate details of how he managed his diabetes to be an elite athlete, how he had requested a trade that eventually brought him to Humboldt and how he recovered, both physically and emotionally from the crash that changed his life.
(A Humboldt Broncos banner hangs in the Pembroke Memorial Centre, memorializing the victims of the bus crash.)
Now, Dahlgren accepts speaking engagements, delivering a positive message to promote human resiliency. He often shares the beautiful tattoo on his left arm that memorializes the victims of the crash. The tattoo features the Broadway bridge in Saskatoon, a favourite place for Dahlgren. There are 13 birds flying in a V formation and 16 stars above the bridge, representing the 29 people who were on the bus that fateful night.
Dahlgren talks openly about the crash. He encourages the tough questions. During the College’s speaker series he addressed whether he had felt any “survivor guilt,” or if he had prepared himself for the potential of someday remembering what happened the night of the accident? He answers honestly but always comes back to a clear message that he will never forget his teammates and his work now is to help others who have experienced trauma or difficult times in their lives.
As the fourth anniversary of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash approaches, Canadians remember where they were when they heard the news of Canada’s worst junior hockey accident. They recall putting their hockey sticks outside their door, the sadness that engulfed the country and the massive fundraising effort to support the victims of the crash.
Kaleb Dahlgren is a bright light, a survivor of a horrific tragedy, who has found a way to build a platform to spread a message of positivity to anyone who will listen. He misses playing hockey, but he has found his calling. He can speak to audiences around the world in a way few people can. He is a leader. He is an inspiration and he is a Humboldt Broncos survivor. He is #HumboldtStrong.