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Remembering Humboldt Strong

The date of April 6, 2018 will be etched in the memory of every junior hockey team in the country.  On that night, a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos Junior A club was struck by a semi-trailer truck while the team was travelling to a playoff game against their rival, the Nipawin Hawks.

The accident shocked the country. 16 people had been killed, 13 more seriously injured. As the country grieved, it also rallied raising more than  $15-million for the victims of the crash. Canadians wore hockey jerseys to work and left hockey sticks on their doorsteps in a show of national support as the #HumboltStrong movement brought together Canada’s hockey community like nothing else ever had. The sorrow that gripped the nation reverberated in every rink in every small town where Canada’s national game is played.

Among the dead were ten players, two coaches, the team’s athletic therapist, the team statistician, a radio announcer and the bus driver.  The investigation revealed the driver of the transport truck had driven through a stop sign, hitting the bus broadside with catastrophic consequences.

The accident had occurred on a Friday night.  Brett Horn, who had played for the Broncos the previous season learned of the crash while visiting some former billets in Pembroke.  Prior to playing in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, Horn had played a couple of years with the Lumber Kings, and this was his first visit back to Pembroke.  When he learned of the extent of the accident, he called his parents and made arrangements to fly to Saskatchewan where he would attend an emotional memorial service at the Broncos’ home arena.

Horn knew six of the players who were on the bus.  Three of his former teammates had been killed and three of them had survived. Among those listed as being fatally injured in the crash was Xavier Labelle, the player Horn was closest to during his time with the Broncos.  The two players had shared the same billet family and enjoyed playing video games together when they weren’t at practice or playing hockey games.

Photo: Xavier Labelle and Brett Horn pose with members of their billet family in Humboldt 

The weekend had been emotionally draining for Horn, but just hours after returning from the memorial service to his former billet’s home, Horn and the entire nation was about to be jolted again. Labelle had survived the crash.  He had awakened from a coma, and that’s when the coroner’s office realized that the identify of two of the players had been mixed up. While Labelle had survived, goaltender Parker Tobin had been killed in the crash.

As the news broke, Horn knew he needed to see Labelle.  Again, he relied on his billet family to drive him to the hospital where he spent time with Labelle for a few days. They were short visits, but it was good to see “X,” the nickname he normally used when addressing his friend.  After a few days, Horn returned to New York State where he was playing university hockey at Potsdam, but he stayed in touch with Labelle as his condition improved and he was released from hospital.

Photo: A Green Humboldt Broncos banner hangs to the right of the Pembroke Lumber Kings championship banners at the Pembroke Memorial Centre.

In the two years since the crash occurred, a lot has happened.  Several of the surviving players attended the 2018 NHL awards where their deceased coach, Darcy Haughan. was posthumously awarded the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award. Junior hockey teams across the country installed Humboldt Strong banners in their arenas. In their first season after the tragedy, the Broncos made the playoffs, but with only two players who survived the crash in their line-up.

On the one year anniversary of the crash,  the surviving team members and supporters came from near and far for a Memorial service in the same rink where they had grieved together 12 months earlier.  At 4:50 p.m., the exact time that the crash had occurred, a moment of silence was observed.

In recognition of the crash victims, the arena was filled with 29 candles and yellow banners with the names of everyone who was on the bus.  Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe was there in person.  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a video taped message, but it was the words spoken by the teammates who survived the accident that carried the most poignant message.

Kaleb Dahlgren said, “It’s the worst knowing that there is no way to bring you back….if there was a way for me to do it, I would.  You will forever be family to me.”

Facing 29 criminal charges, 16 counts of dangerous driving causing death and 13 of causing bodily harm. the driver of the truck pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 8 years in prison . Recently, surviving player Ryan Straschnitzki filed a $13.5-million lawsuit against those he believes were responsible for the crash. Straschnitzki was paralyzed from the waste down when he suffered a spinal chord injury in the accident.

On that fateful April night two years ago, lives were lost and lives were forever changed. Canada, and particularly the junior hockey fraternity, will never forget Humboldt.  #HumboldtStrong