'Healing is part of the game': Humboldt lingers in memories as Sask. teams prepare for Memorial Cup battle

As players for the Regina Pats and Swift Current Broncos prepare for the first Memorial Cup game between two Saskatchewan teams in almost three decades, the tragedy that rocked the province's hockey community last month remains in the memories of everyone involved.

Regina Pats and Swift Current Broncos face off Wednesday night

Regina Pats' Jake Leschyshyn stands in front of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan's net during second period Memorial Cup action in Regina on Sunday. (Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward)

As players for the Regina Pats and Swift Current Broncos prepare for the first Memorial Cup game between two Saskatchewan teams in almost three decades, the tragedy that rocked the province's hockey community last month remains in the memories of everyone involved.

On April 6, the bus carrying the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League's Humboldt Broncos collided with a semi trailer at a rural Sask. intersection. The crash killed 16 people riding the bus and injured 13 more.

"I think everyone who is playing in this tournament has some sort of relationship to a person that was involved in the accident, or knew someone somehow," Pats centre Jake Leschyshyn said Wednesday morning. 

Regina and Swift Current are set to face each other Wednesday night in Regina for the final game of the Memorial Cup's round robin. A Regina win would eliminate Swift Current from the tournament. 

Both teams are playing not just for the Memorial Cup, but also for all of Saskatchewan hockey.- Manny Viveiros, Swift Current Broncos head coach

Leschyshyn said Pats players, who were on hiatus after being eliminated from the WHL playoffs by Swift Current, were home with their families when the Humboldt crash happened. He said being with family helped him process the event, but that rejoining the team to prepare for the Memorial Cup gave players a chance to heal as a group.

"Getting back and being able to talk to teammates and stuff was another thing that really helped guys out for sure," he said.

Wednesday's all-Saskatchewan showdown has extra meaning in the wake of the tragedy, he said.

"Healing is part of the game. It's going to be huge in that regard."

There are 24 members of the Humboldt Broncos, with members of the team ranging in age from 16 to 21. (Humboldt Broncos/Twitter)

'You never forget'

Swift Current has painful experience with how such a tragedy can affect a community. In 1986 a bus carrying the WHL team went off a rural highway. Four players died.

Some of the surviving players went on to win the Memorial Cup for Swift Current in 1989. The final game, between Swift Current and host team Saskatoon, was the last time two Saskatchewan teams faced off in the Memorial Cup tournament. Swift Current won 4-3 in overtime on a goal by Tim Tisdale, a survivor of the '86 crash.

Swift Current Broncos forward Aleksi Heponiemi fights for control of the puck with Hamilton Bulldogs forward Ryan Moore. A loss to Regina Wednesday night would eliminate Swift Current from the Memorial Cup. (Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward)

Manny Viveiros, coach of this year's Swift Current squad, said the recovery process from the Humboldt crash is still ongoing. 

"Like anything else, we're hoping the healing has started, and you can see that it's started, but you never forget," he said.

He said that both teams playing Wednesday had connections to the Humboldt team and that the tragedy never leaves the back of their minds.

"Both teams are playing not just for the Memorial Cup, but also for all of Saskatchewan hockey."

'It's their jersey'

A tribute to Humboldt that has made its way around the U.S. hockey world will also be at Wednesday's game.

Dan Gitzler, who was born in St. John's but grew up in the U.S. and now lives in Parrish, Florida, said he was hit hard when he heard about the Humboldt crash. 

"They were all kids chasing their dreams," Gitzler said.

He created what he calls the Humboldt Jersey, a Tampa Bay Lightning jersey bearing the number 16 in honour of those lost in the crash.

Starting with the first game of the Lightning's NHL playoff run, Gitzler started wearing the jersey to games himself or sending it with volunteers who were cheering the team on. He later sent it with volunteers to the SJHL finals and a playoff game for the AHL's Syracuse Crunch.

He also started collecting signatures on the jersey. Some are from famous hockey players. Others have some connection to Humboldt. He even made sure to get one from an NHL statistician in tribute to Humboldt statistician Brody Hinz. There are more than 100 on the jersey.

Now the jersey is in Regina, with volunteers who will bring it to Wednesday night's game, Gitzler said.

The final destination for the jersey is Humboldt itself. He plans to send it to someone in the town once the Lightning are done with the NHL playoffs.

"It's their jersey. They can do what they want with it," he said.

He said the point of the jersey was to show people affected by the tragedy that people are behind them.

"If one person feels just a little bit better about any of it because of this jersey, then the jersey has accomplished its mission."

with files from Olivia Stefanovich