'The Broncos remind us of Darcy': Why head coach's widow is stepping away from hockey

As the new season begins for the Humboldt Broncos, the family of former head coach Darcy Haugan hopes his legacy lives on.

'Hockey was very much a family venture for us,' says Christina Haugan

Christina Haugan is stepping away from her involvement with the Humboldt Broncos, months after a fatal collision that left her husband Darcy Haugan and 15 others dead. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Christina Haugan's brown leather bracelet is engraved with the phrase, "Take care of the seconds and the minutes take care of themselves."

It's something her husband, Darcy Haugan, used to say to his hockey players.

That was before April 6, when Haugan and 15 others were killed when a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos and a semi-trailer collided about 30 kilometres north of Tisdale, Sask., on the way to a playoff game.

Darcy, 42, was head coach for three seasons, and Christina, 42, worked as office manager. Aug. 4 would have been their 17th wedding anniversary. They poured energy into the junior hockey team and raised two boys, now 10 and 13. 

"If you work hard that second ... Eventually the game moves on," Christina explains. "That's kind of our life motto at the moment."

'We're glad that hockey's moving on'

With Darcy gone, Christina decided it's time for her to take a step back from the team. She resigned from her job in the office, focusing instead on helping her children start the school year and teaching piano.

"It's too hard to be as involved as we were before, and the reason — hockey was very much a family venture for us," she says.

"For us, the Broncos remind us of Darcy."

While her children will continue to play hockey, she isn't sure if her family will stay in Humboldt. They came to the small Saskatchewan city strictly for the Broncos. But she still wants to keep track of the team's games — from a distance.

Christina says Darcy was the backbone of their family. She and her two sons are still in Humboldt, but aren't yet sure what's next for them. (Christina Haugan/Supplied)

"We're glad that hockey's moving on. It has to," she says. "We want them to be successful. We wish them the best."

The team is now being led by new head coach and general manager Nathan Oystrick, a Regina-born former NHL defenceman.

"I did not know Darcy Haugan, but like so many people in this world today, I wish I had," said Oystrick on July 3 when he was introduced to the community. 

"I believe in his commitment to not only building skilled hockey players, but developing skilled human beings."

'Family first'

Darcy was a quiet, approachable coach, Christina says — the type to help a player with a flat tire in the middle of the night. She says he sometimes chose less-skilled players to join his team because above all he wanted "good people, good kids."

"Every single kid on that bus was an incredible human being because that was the culture he designed and he expected."

Darcy Haugan was given the inaugural Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award, which is awarded to someone who has helped their community through hockey. His wife and surviving players picked it up at the NHL awards in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Before the new team glides onto the ice of the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt to face off against the Nipawin Hawks during their home opener on Sept. 12, Oystrick and the players will see Darcy's core covenant. It's been painted on the walls of the Elgar Petersen Arena.

It reads: "Family first. To treat my teammates and co-workers with respect. To be thankful for the opportunity to wear the Bronco jersey. To play each game and practise with passion and determination. To conduct ourselves with honesty and integrity. To treat all volunteers, billets, sponsors and fans with respect and gratitude. Understand that we are building foundations for future generations with our words and actions. To always have hope and believe that everything is possible. To always give more than you take. To strive for greatness in all areas of life."

She hopes the new players take the words to heart.

'Your heart stops'

On the night of the crash, Christina made 30 spaghetti dinners for the team because Darcy was concerned the players weren't eating enough.

She was getting ready to take her youngest to the movies when a Broncos board member called to ask her if she had heard about the crash.

At first she thought it was a fender-bender — maybe the bus had hit a moose or rolled over into the ditch.

Nothing prepared her for the terrible reality.

A memorial made of hockey sticks, crosses and Canadian flags is seen at the crash site of the Humboldt Broncos hockey team near Tisdale, Sask., in August. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

She tried to phone Darcy and assistant coach Mark Cross. No answer.

She called the other assistant coach, Chris Beaudry, who did not ride on the bus. When she got him on the line, she could tell by the sound of his shaky voice that the collision was more serious than she thought. 

"I could tell it was bad," she says. "You just feel like you can't breathe, and your heart stops."

Family and friends got together to make a list of all the people they thought were on the bus, and crossed off the names of those who they heard were transported to hospital, she says.

Around 10:30 p.m., she got word from the Broncos team chaplain: Darcy didn't make it. 

Players 'showed up for him'

The effort Darcy put into his players during his 18-year coaching career was "almost overwhelming sometimes," Christina says.

"I wasn't sure he was making an impact sometimes," she says. "These kids are young, they don't always make the smartest decisions, and you just wonder sometimes if it's worth it."

Players will soon be on the bench where the Humboldt Broncos sit at the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt, Sask. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

At Darcy's funeral, she got a glimpse of what her husband had meant to the young men he coached. She and her two children stood for 20 minutes as former hockey players walked by and gave them hugs on the way to honour her husband.

"When I saw the number of players that showed up for him — most of them from far, far away — it all became clear," she says.

"Every minute that he invested in them, every sacrifice he made or we made as a family, every game that he missed of his own kids so that he could coach these kids — it was OK."

And now, a new team is getting ready to hit the ice. 

"He always believed you did your coaching during practice ... Once the game started, you let them play."

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a network reporter for CBC News based in Toronto. She previously worked in Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter @CBCOlivia. Send story ideas to olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.