'Going to gain my heart back': walker crosses Ontario, with a dream to play hockey in Humboldt

He has blisters on his feet and his own losses to carry, but every step he takes closer on a 1,150-kilometre journey, Rance Cardinal can feel those wounds healing. He's on his way from Sioux Lookout, Ont., to Humboldt, Sask., with a hope to play hockey.

Former junior B hockey player wants to walk 1,150 kilometres to city's Elgar Petersen arena

Rance Cardinal was a junior B hockey player who lost a teammate after a vehicle collision, as well as a brother to an illness. When he heard about the Humboldt Broncos' team bus crash, he began walking from his home near Sioux Lookout, Ont., to Humboldt, Sask., a distance of nearly 1,150 kilometres. (Submitted photo)

He has blisters on his feet and his own losses to carry, but every step he takes closer on a 1,150-kilometre journey, Rance Cardinal can feel those wounds healing.

"It's changing every mile, it's just changing my thoughts," he said of his walk from Sioux Lookout, Ont., to Humboldt, Sask. "When I get there, I'm just going to feel so much joy and pride."

Like the Humboldt Broncos, Cardinal lost a former teammate to a vehicle accident, as well as his brother, and those scars still go deep.

"Hockey is pretty much the thing that's keeping me going," he said.

Now Cardinal is carrying a sign reading "Humboldt Strong" and a hockey stick, with a goal to make it to the city's Elgar Petersen Arena, "where the energy is," and play the sport so many Canadians love, with others who are grieving.

"I'm still trying to patch up the wound and I think this, what I'm doing right now, is going to gain my heart back."

Rance Cardinal stops to take a break, hockey stick in hand, on his route along the Trans-Canada Highway. (Submitted photo)

Junior hockey, living the life

Cardinal's father strapped his first pair of skates on him when he was just two, as he wobbled across the pond. Those first steps turned into a childhood of playing hockey with his brother and friends in his home reserve of Saddle Lake, Alta. 

When he was 17, he joined the local junior B team, the Saddle Lake Warriors.  

"They say, you can't live juniors twice. You gotta do it right," he said, of hanging out with "the boys," playing hockey and travelling on the road. "It was pretty much living the life."

But the loss of his teammate, as well as his brother, were both hard knocks. His brother had been so full of life, outgoing and athletic, that Cardinal couldn't believe it when his brother fell sick and didn't recover.  

"When he started getting sick, he just got really sick. It was just devastating," he said. "I lost myself. I lost my heart. I don't ever want to go through that ever again."

That experience was part of why the Broncos' crash affected him so strongly.

Jets, Blackhawks game brings tragedy home

Cardinal was just about to attend the Winnipeg Jets and Chicago Blackhawks' April 7 game. He'd brought a sign to the game, reading, "Put Me on TV" as a laugh to get on the Jumbotron.

Just before the game started, he heard the news of the Broncos' team bus crash and all the laughter got knocked out of him.

"It really hit me like a shockwave of pain, right inside," he said, recalling he told his uncle, "It's not funny no more. I want to change my sign."

His uncle flipped the sign and wrote "Humboldt Strong" on the back, and for the rest of the game, Cardinal held it up proudly, a message to Humboldt and all those grieving that he stood with them.

Rance Cardinal heard about the Humboldt Broncos' crash the day after it happened, while attending a Winnipeg Jets and Chicago Blackhawks game. He made the decision to walk to Saskatchewan shortly after attending that game. (Submitted photo)

When the game was done, he looked at the sign and told his uncle, "This would be a real honour to get this to Humboldt."

"He gave me a different look. It wasn't a look of doubt. It was a look of pride," he recalled.

After three restless and sleepless nights, he decided not to wait any longer. On April 11, he started walking from near his current home at Lac Seul First Nation, Ont., to Humboldt, averaging 40 kilometres per day.

"After a couple of kilometres, it's just mind over matter, just keep going."

His family and friends have been supportive, as are those he's met on the way. Many drivers have honked at him while others have made donations that he hopes to bring with him to Humboldt.

"It's as if I scored a hockey goal," he marvelled, of all the noise and cheers he hears as he takes each step and sees the distance to Saskatchewan slowly melt away.

No matter what kind of race you are, if you're a hockey player, you're a true Canadian.- Rance Cardinal

"I'm making every mile count. When people are honking at me, it's giving me that motivation and it's feeding me."

He wants the people of Humboldt to know that he's got their back, and that after shedding so many tears, they'll play that game of hockey together someday soon.

"It's getting everybody together. It's bringing people together," he said. "No matter what kind of race you are, if you're a hockey player, you're a true Canadian."