Humboldt's 'long, tough struggle' to balance remembering and moving on
'I think we're seeing some light at the end of the tunnel,': Mayor
It's not just a word on T-shirts all over Humboldt.
Some days it's also a plea, a prayer for a community struggling to come to terms with the tragic bus crash that killed 16 Junior A hockey players, coaches and staff and injured 13 more.
"I'm not going to lie. It's been a long, tough struggle for the community and for the families. But I think we're seeing some light at the end of the tunnel," said Humboldt Mayor Rob Muench.
"The tragedy was this huge coming-together as a community and the support from all around the world, it's been a great help to our community."
Voted as Canada's News Story of the Year by the Canadian Press, the Humboldt Broncos bus crash on April 6 united the country in grief, made headlines around the world and spurred people coast-to-coast to leave sticks on porches.
The spotlight may have dimmed since the spring, but the team, the survivors, the grieving families and the community are still struggling to balance moving on with remembering and honouring those lost.
Banners, put on display during the team's holiday break, now greet visitors to Elgar Petersen arena.
The front row is reserved for those who died in the crash or shortly after and feature their names, titles and retired jersey numbers.
The second row remembers those who survived. At the bottom, that same mantra:
"As people walk into the main doors here, we'll be able to see and remember," Broncos team president Jamie Brockman said as the banners were going up.
"It's been a lot of sadness here for a while but … just to have hockey back in Humboldt was good."
It's been a rebuilding season, from the special draft to find new players to the opening home game with its emotionally-charged tribute.
The Broncos started the season with three players who were on the bus that day: Derek Patter, Tyler Smith and Brayden Camrud. Smith has since returned home to focus on his recovery.
April's legacy is both a heavy weight and inspiration for the team. There are so many expectations and so much to play for.
They have bonded faster and firmer than their coach has ever seen.
"They come to the rink every single morning ready to go and ready to compete," said Regina-born Oystrick, who was chosen as the new coach and general manager to replace Darcy Haugan. "I'm tremendously proud of each and every one of them."
Oystrick, who played for the Atlanta Thrashers, Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues, knows he's stepped into very big coaching shoes. He admits he constantly second-guesses himself.
"Sometimes you don't really believe in yourself when things are going wrong. You learn how to battle through it and prove yourself wrong."
Humboldt — always hockey-crazy — continues to support the team, filling the stands with parents, grey-haired former hockey players and young people waving T-shirts.
"It's been fun going to the games and cheering, watching the team. You know I think they gelled really quickly because they knew they were playing not only for themselves but for the former team and for the community," Muench said.
Leon Winckel is one of many Humboldt residents who bought season tickets this year. He attends every game, cheering on the home squad.
The team started strong, leading the league for several weeks. They slipped in the standings in the last month, but Winckel believes they will bounce back in January.
"There's a lot of limelight on these young guys so you have to give them the credit," he said.
"You don't want to set your sights too high. It's just good that we have a team and it's good that they're, I think, enjoying themselves playing and do the best they can."
Healing outside of hockey
While the Broncos rebuild, one of the team's former coaches is trying to find healing away from hockey.
Chris Beaudry was the only coach on the team last year who didn't die in the crash. He was in his own vehicle, following the the team bus.
He was one of the first on the scene.
"I instantly went into shock. I've had family members pass before and been in accidents myself, but this was a totally different feeling," he said.
Beaudry's next few weeks were a blur of identifying victims in the morgue, dealing with those in hospital and trying to find answers for parents' anguished questions.
"I felt like I was on autopilot for about two and a half weeks ... trying to help people," he said.
Beaudry wasn't hired back by the Broncos this season. He was picked up by another SJHL team, the Melville Millionaires, but had to step away after 13 games.
"With hockey, I tried jumping back in again and it almost sent me back drinking again. At the end of games, I would be soaking wet just drenched from sweat and it was too much," he said.
Because Beaudry wasn't on the bus when it crashed, he didn't get any of the $15 million dollars raised through a GoFundMe campaign.
His counselling and some expenses have been covered by the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and Hockey Canada.
"I think the [Broncos] team has a lot of burdens they have to take care of," he explained. "I don't think I am one that needs to be taken care of."
A farmer with time on his hands in the winter, Beaudry is now trying to get his outdoor rink ready so his young daughters can practice their skating.
"It gives me another task, something to get your mind off of itself," he said as he sprayed water on the ice.
Meanwhile, he is working to exorcise the ghosts that still haunt him.
He's starting to see some progress.
"If I am having a bad moment, I can allow myself because it's OK. I can be emotional. I can cry which is good and healthy but when the moment has passed, it's past."
Hope for the New Year
This crash will continue to be in the news in the New Year.
RCMP have charged the truck's driver, Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, with 16 counts of dangerous driving causing death and 13 counts of dangerous driving causing bodily injury.
His latest hearing was adjourned Dec. 18 at the request of the defence, who wanted more time to review a provincial traffic report that examined the intersection where the accident occurred.
Sidhu is scheduled to be back in court on Jan. 8, possibly to enter a plea.
Sukhmander Singh, the owner of the trucking company Sidhu worked for, also faces eight charges relating to non-compliance with federal and provincial safety regulations in the months before the crash.
The second half of the hockey season starts Jan. 2 with a home game against the Notre Dame Hounds.
Coach Oystrick wants to encourage fans to keep supporting them.
"I want to thank the community of Humboldt and the surrounding area for showing up every single night and packing this building and making sure they're loud and crazy," he said.
"We're proud of this group. We're proud of what they're accomplishing and we're going to try and go win a championship."
As the anniversary of that fateful day draws near, the survivors will have to rely on their mantra and believe that they can get through it.
With files by Brett Purdy