Okotoks Oilers vow to honour Humboldt with 'good hard clean hockey' in run for AJHL championship
Junior A team taking on Spruce Grove Saints in final series starting Friday
When the Okotoks Oilers of the Alberta Junior Hockey League start their championship run on Friday night against the team from Spruce Grove, they'll be skating into the series with heavy hearts.
The Oilers won their AJHL semi-final against the Brooks Bandits on Sunday, less than 48-hours after 15 people were killed and 14 injured when a bus filled with staff and players of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team collided with a transport truck in rural Saskatchewan.
Some of the Oilers players lost friends in the accident.
"After the game, the room was quiet," said coach Tyler Deis. "There was no music being played. It was quiet."
Goalie Riley Morris says it was difficult to board the team bus to get to that game on Sunday.
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"I think a lot of guys just had the victims in mind," he said.
"I think it was just a reality check of how fragile life is for us, especially being on the bus every day, logging hours every year. But you know, it was tough."
The Oilers open the league's championship series in Okotoks on Friday night against the Spruce Grove Saints.
Two of the Broncos players killed in the crash had been traded to Humboldt by the Spruce Grove team.
"Their leading goal scorer played in Humboldt for the last three years, so it would be really tough to imagine what he's going through right now. He must have a lot of friends from out there," Morris said.
Coach Deis says crisis counsellors talked to the team prior to the trip to Brooks.
"Every person on that bus, it was going through their head, and I guarantee, our bus driver, it was in his head," he said.
"But … we got on that bus and we had to play that game on Sunday night."
Deis now faces the challenge of guiding his players into one last series — with at least two more bus rides to Spruce Grove.
"It's going to be on everyone's mind, and you know we've got a couple of kids on our team that are personally affected by it. So you just try to help them out to be the best that they can be and know that they have the support around them for whatever comes," he said.
The Oilers are wearing the logo of the Humboldt Broncos on their helmets as a tribute to their hockey brothers in Saskatchewan, Deis says.
"This is about Humboldt, and we're going to play the game hard for them," he said.
Team Captain Carter Huber says he and his teammates are grateful to be together and they will play with Humboldt in their hearts.
"Because you know those young men that lost their lives and were injured, they loved playing hockey. And for us to still have that opportunity, we just really need to embrace it and honour them by playing good hard clean hockey," he said.
"We're just trying to support as much as we can, and represent the community of Okotoks in the best way we can. And absolutely Humboldt comes first and it's much bigger than just the game of hockey."
Morris says the tragedy has strengthened the bonds among the guys on the team.
"It's brought us all closer together, because you do realize how quickly it could be over, and it helped us just kind of cherish each other a little more," Morris said.
"It's a lot easier to go through this with a band of brothers of 23 guys."
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With files from Dave Will