Injured Humboldt Broncos player says he's going to live big 'for the guys who didn't make it'

Recovering from a long list of injuries he received in the tragic Humboldt Broncos bus crash, Kaleb Dahlgren says he plans to take his second chance and 'live big … for the guys who didn't make it.'

'It can all change in an instant,' 20-year-old Kaleb Dahlgren says

Humboldt Broncos assistant captain Kaleb Dahlgren is getting physiotherapy and working out three times a week at Zone Sports Physiotherapy in Saskatoon, the beginning of a long road to recovery. (Don Somers, CBC News)

A slogan on a T-shirt Kaleb Dahlgren got from the NHL's L.A. Kings sums up how he plans to recover from injuries he suffered in the tragic Humboldt Broncos bus crash that left 16 people dead: "Enjoy the Grind."

"That really spoke volumes to me because a lot of people can wake up in the morning and be negative: 'Work sucks. Why am I up so early?' Everyone's got their own things to complain about, but you just gotta enjoy the grind and be grateful you're here and thankful for all that you've got," Dahlgren, a 20-year-old forward and assistant captain, said from his home in Saskatoon.

"It can all change in an instant."

The collision between the Broncos bus and a semi-trailer took place April 6 around 5 p.m. on Highway 35, about 30 kilometres from Tisdale, in northeastern Saskatchewan. 

The wreckage of the fatal crash outside of Tisdale is seen in early April. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The Broncos were travelling to Nipawin from the team's hometown of Humboldt for the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) semifinal series against the Nipawin Hawks.

Woke up 4 days later

Dahlgren doesn't remember the crash that left 16 players and team staff members dead and 13 injured, including himself. 

He had just changed into his suit and put on his headphones.

He woke up four days later, confused, with fractures and a puncture wound in his skull, a brain injury, two broken vertebrae in his neck, three others that were fractured or cracked, and four broken vertebrae in his back. 

Wondering if he'd been checked from behind. Wondering who won the game.

"With his type of brain injury, only three to five per cent of people recover from that," his father, Mark Dahlgren, told CBC News. "There was lots of neurological cognitive testing done, and they couldn't find any deficits, and so that in itself is miraculous."

Parents spent time at the scene

Dahlgren's parents, both nurses, spent time at the scene of the crash that day. They endured nearly five torturous hours of not knowing if he'd survived. 

"We thought that nobody had made it. We didn't see any survivors. So we were just trying to come to terms with the fact that nobody survived," Mark Dahlgren said. 

Dahlgren suffered a fractured skull, brain damage, two broken vertebrae in his neck and four in his back. (Mark Dahlgren)

They had to tell their son about the tragedy twice.

"We found out a few days after ... he didn't remember everything we told him and he wasn't sure how he got the injury," his father said.

"He had the same reaction, 'Just wake me up, I'm dreaming,' And then he said, 'I need to live big, I need to live for the guys that didn't make it.'"

'I'm happy he's still here'

Within days, Kaleb Dahlgren had convinced the medical staff in charge of this rehabilitation to let him do some light workouts — the familiarity and routine was a comfort.

Dahlgren shared a hospital room with some of his teammates and says that helped the healing process — not just physically but mentally and emotionally as well.

The hardest part, so far, said Dahlgren, was not being able to attend any of the 16 funerals. He was too injured to leave the hospital.

Kaleb Dahlgren explains what his teammates who died in the crash meant to him.

Dahlgren reflects on his love for his team and teammates. 0:40

His father said that, for him, the toughest part has been grappling with the the fact that people lost their sons and his survived.

"And you know, there's the guilt that comes with that."

He said he's stopped asking "why" and "what if."

"It was the worst day of my life and the best day of my life — all within four hours," he said. "Every day, I tell Kaleb I'm happy he's still here, that I love him."

While it's not easy to see his son so severely injured, Mark Dahlgren says he has no anger toward the driver of the semi-trailer.

"I can't imagine what he's going through. And I wish we could support him, too, because he's a victim in all this, too. And, you know, accidents happen, and the chances of both those vehicles being in that intersection at the same time are astronomical. … I just really feel for him and his family."

Physiotherapy 3 times a week

Dahlgren was discharged from hospital on Apr. 27. The top item on his to-do list was to visit Humboldt.

Dahlgren said he was astounded but not surprised by the memorials for victims of the crash. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

He visited the Grade 5 students he volunteered with, a special friend in the care home and some of the men with disabilities that he used to drive to and from the rink for every game. He was astounded by the memorials around town.

Dahlgren says the outpouring of support has made a world of difference.

Humboldt crash survivor Kaleb Dahlgren thankful for the immense public support. 0:41

He said it was hard to return to the rink, and to see the messages written on his teammates' stalls in the team's locker room.

Now, he's trying to settle into a routine. Three times a week, he gets physiotherapy and he's starting to work out, a look of determination and concentration on his face.

University plans deferred

A big part of his recovery involves rest, fresh air and "brain food" — he's a regular at Thrive Juice Company, picking up a shopping bag full of Royal Flush, made of kale, spinach, celery, cucumber, apple, lime and ginger.

"It's enough greens for the whole day," he said with a grin, chugging the dark green liquid. 

At nearly 21, this was Dahlgren's last season with the Broncos.  Shortly before the crash, he was sorting through hockey scholarship offers at a handful of universities and looking forward to a bright future in either business or education.

Those plans are on hold now. Most of the universities have deferred their offers for a year so he can concentrate on healing — and giving back to the community that means so much to him.

Before the crash, Dahlgren was already an ambassador for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. (Don Somers, CBC News)

Dahlgren hopes he can still play a small role with the Broncos, perhaps as a scout.

'I want to be a difference maker'

Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age four, he's an ambassador for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He also created a project called Dahlgren's Diabeauties, which offers kids with Type 1 diabetes a little hockey limelight. At each home game throughout the Broncos' season, a child with the condition gets to wear a special jersey for the game and participate in the puck drop.

"I want to be a difference maker and be a positive person about it, because I know up there [in heaven] that's what they'd want me to be," he said.

Dahlgren describes his extensive volunteer work in Humboldt.

Dahlgren talks about giving back to the community, being a volunteer. 1:17

Dahlgren pulled out a notebook with pages of handwritten names to whom he wanted to say thank you: to the first responders and medical staff; the companies that are supporting the Broncos and the families; the NHL and the hockey world; the music industry; and those around the world who sent messages of support and contributed to an online fundraising campaign.

"I've just been bombarded with all the love, and I'm really grateful for that," he said.

'I'll live the rest of my life for them'

Dahlgren knows there will be tough days ahead.

He doesn't know why he survived when others around him didn't. But he knows he's been given a second chance at life.

"Maybe it wasn't my time to go. I think it's just the luck of the draw, though, because it wasn't anyone else's time to go," he said.

"I miss them. I love them very much. And I'll live the rest of my life for them."

Watch Kaleb Dahlgren's full interview with the CBC's Karen Pauls 22:55

About the Author

Karen Pauls

National Reporter

Karen Pauls is an award-winning journalist who has been a national news reporter in Manitoba since 2004. She has travelled across Canada and around the world to do stories for CBC, including the 2011 Royal Wedding in London. Karen has worked in Washington and was the correspondent in Berlin, Germany, for three months in 2013, covering the selection of Pope Francis in Rome. Twitter @karenpaulscbc