A new sisterhood: Girlfriends of Humboldt Broncos form special bond amid tragedy

Most girlfriends of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team didn't know each other until April's tragic bus crash brought them together in an inseparable way.

The young women recently gathered for the first time to create commemorative jean jackets

Kayleigh Feschuk, 17, lost her 19-year-old boyfriend Jacob Leicht in the Humboldt Broncos crash on April 6 when the Charlie's Charters bus the junior hockey team was travelling on collided with a semi-trailer near Tisdale, Sask. (Submitted by Kayleigh Feschuk)

Most girlfriends of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team didn't know each other until April's tragic bus crash brought them together in an inseparable way.

Kayleigh Feschuk, 17, was having what she thought was one of the best days watching elephants on a trip of a lifetime in Chiang Mai, Thailand, when her travel advisers pulled her aside after lunch.

"I heard them say the words 'Humboldt Broncos bus,'" Feschuk said. "I just fell to my knees."

Feschuk's boyfriend, Jacob Leicht, 19, played left wing on the junior hockey team in Humboldt, Sask.

He was on his way to Nipawin, Sask., with his teammates on April 6 for a playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks when the Charlie's Charters bus they were travelling on collided with a semi-trailer approximately 30 kilometres north of Tisdale, Sask.

Leicht was Feschuk's first love. She calls their relationship perfect.
Feschuk planned to celebrate her high school graduation with Leicht. Instead, she commemorated the occasion with him in spirit. (Submitted by Kayleigh Feschuk)

"We had a tendency to read each other in very unique and intense ways, and it was easy," Feschuk said.

"You don't expect to find somebody like that at 17 and at 19, but we did. We were thankful for it every day and still are."

Feschuk began scrambling after she got the news of the bus crash to find out more information about Leicht's condition. 

It took her almost an hour to connect with Leicht's mom on an international phone line and confirm her greatest fear.

"I'm sorry, sweetheart," Feschuk recalled Leicht's mom saying. "I don't think he's alive."

'An immediate connection'

Feschuk remembers scarce bits of what happened afterwards, as she made the long journey home from across the globe to Saskatchewan.

"It didn't feel real. It just felt like a nightmare," Feschuk said. 

"I kept on saying that I just wanted to wake up because I thought that I would. I hoped that I would. Sometimes I still hope I do."

In total, 16 people died as result of the collision, including Leicht. Thirteen others were injured. Two survivors are paralyzed from the chest down and two others remain in hospital. 

RCMP are still investigating the cause of the crash. No charges have been laid.
The Broncos' girlfriends walk to the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt, Sask., sporting their jean jacket uniforms with the names and jersey numbers of their boyfriends stitched on the back. (Submitted by Kayleigh Feschuk)

Feschuk didn't know what to expect of her new reality when she got off her plane. "I wasn't prepared," Feschuk said. "What do I do now?"  

She soon got an answer.

She received a direct message on Instagram from another girlfriend of a Broncos player just before Leicht's 's funeral. 

The woman asked if Feschuk wanted to join a group chat with other girlfriends of deceased and surviving Humboldt Broncos players from across Western Canada.

From there, a sisterhood was formed. 

"It was just an immediate connection," Feschuk said. "I couldn't do it without them."

'Our own little team'

The group is in constant communication. They have fun on Snapchat to lighten each other's moods, and they speak candidly about their feelings, sharing stories, advice and encouragement. 

Most of the young women hadn't met before the collision.
The women recently met each other for the first time to pay homage to their boyfriends at the rink where the team plays. (Submitted by Kayleigh Feschuk)

They gathered for the first time in person last weekend in Saskatoon and Humboldt to create commemorative jean jackets with the names and jersey numbers of their boyfriends, and angel wings for the deceased.

Quinn Courtney, 19, came up with the idea.

She lost her boyfriend, Jaxon Joseph, 20, and wanted to pay tribute to him and the other players.

"What we have is really special," Courtney said about the girlfriends. "It's almost like our own little team."

Courtney wanted to design personalized jean jackets after seeing photos of NHL wives and girlfriends wearing customized jackets of their own.
Quinn Courtney, 19, holds up the personalized jacket she made to honour her deceased boyfriend Jaxon Joseph. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

Courtney ordered patches of the Canadian flag, the Humboldt Broncos logo and provincial flags from where the players are from, and asked each girlfriend to find a design that carries symbolic meaning to them.

Feschuk plans to add a shooting star, a fish hook since she fished with Leicht on one of their first dates, a saxophone because he played the instrument and — if she can find it — something from his favourite TV show, The Office.

'Our own special category'

Courtney has an image of a dog that he loved and a deer for hunting. She used the project as a way to channel her grief.

She found out about the collision through a series of phone calls and texts. 

Courtney said the news didn't sink in until she said what happened out loud.

She rushed to the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon that night and sat in silence for eight hours until a doctor came out after 5 a.m. to tell her Joseph had died.

"It was really sad," Courtney said. "I felt like I had a lot of support with me, though. I was with my family and his family ... It was obviously nice, but not nice."
Most of the women met for the first time last weekend to finish making their jacket uniform. (Supplied/Quinn Courtney)

Courtney also found strength from the girlfriends of Joseph's friends on the Broncos.

"You never see, 'My thoughts are with the girlfriends,'" Courtney said. 

"You see with the friends and family, and I don't feel like I fit quite into either of those categories. I feel like a little bit of a mixture of them, but it's almost like we're in our own special category."

She decided to expand her support system with the girlfriends of other players so they could help each other.

"I know I have people in my place and I know I have people to talk to," Courtney said. "I love every one of them."

'Strength in numbers'

The young women sported their jean jacket uniform during their weekend get-together at the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt, where the Broncos play.

"There's something about standing in the rink with all those girls knowing that we had each been there at one point to watch them and we're still there for them," Feschuk said.

"Every single girl is such a source of inspiration to me personally."

Feschuk found the new relationships she's formed especially helpful this week when she celebrated her high school graduation — an occasion her boyfriend wished to attend.

"We are so young, yet we are so strong," Feschuk said.

"Having everybody together is the first time I've really been able to understand the term Humboldt Strong or 'You are so strong.' There's strength in numbers and the girls provide proof of that."
The women plan to stay in touch to offer each other support. (Submitted by Kayleigh Feschuk)

Through their resiliency, the women continue to champion one another.

"It's just uplifting," Feschuk said.

"One of the main trends is I'm here for you. You're not alone because I feel that way, too ... That's something I'm thankful for."

They're already planning a gathering at the end of the summer in Calgary. 

"I see it sticking together forever just like I know the guys will," Courtney said.

"I think it's a really strong team with this special bond that no one else shares."


Statement on behalf of other girlfriends

This tragedy has united seventeen young women with a unique, lifelong bond. The relationship that we share with our boys is that of family. To be in love is a conscious, important choice that both we and our significant others all made; before, during, and after April 6th. We love our boys with everything we have, and have experienced the immenseness of this tragedy in its entirety. Sometimes we feel as though the role of the girlfriend is overlooked. The connection we've established and the love that radiates from the stories we share act as evidence of our importance to the boys.

The realization that we are experiencing the same pain is heartbreaking. However, we've made the decision to band together. To offer support as well as to accept it. To choose connectivity over solitude. The support and strength we are able to provide one another with is astronomical, and we ourselves have created a team. A team that can cry together, laugh together, reminisce together, and most importantly, love together.

On June 22-24, we met for the first official Bronco Girlfriends Weekend in Saskatoon. We are a group that extends from all around western Canada, and some of us hadn't yet met in person. Regardless, our connection was instantaneous. We made our jackets to symbolize the unique flare that each boy brought to the team. They are hockey players, but they are also so, so much more. We wear them to honour both the Broncos and the love that we will forever carry for these men.

We would give anything to have our boys back and to rid them of their pain, but we are blessed to have one another. We are fortunate to have an endless support group full of seventeen strong, beautiful, and understanding new friends. There is strength in numbers. Our love will live on infinitely.


olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca

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.