Humboldt opens its arms to Rance Cardinal, Broncos' hockey hero

For Rance Cardinal, a journey of 1,200 kilometres from Sioux Lookout, Ont. to Humboldt, Sask. is slowly coming to an end after 47 days of walking, and an emotional reunion lies ahead. Waiting for him at the finish line will be the Broncos’ families and people of Humboldt, and his own family members, whom he hasn’t seen for more than three years.

Hundreds gathered to greet Rance Cardinal, after he walked 1,200 km to deliver a Humboldt Strong sign

Rance Cardinal enters the City of Humboldt on Sunday, after a 1,200 kilometre journey that began in Ontario, 48 days earlier. (CBC News)

The clouds are dark in the distance and lightning flashes ahead, as I drive down Saskatchewan's Highway 5, looking for a man with a Humboldt Strong sign and a hockey stick, a man on a mission.

For Rance Cardinal, a journey of 1,200 kilometres from Sioux Lookout, Ont. to Humboldt, Sask. is slowly coming to an end after 47 days of walking, and an emotional reunion lies ahead. Waiting for him at the finish line will be the Broncos' families and people of Humboldt, and his own family members, whom he hasn't seen for more than three years.

"It's hitting me now. It's only a matter of hours," he says, bending over and pumping his fist. "I can't believe it. One more day. One more day!"

He'd started off his walk earlier taping his pants to his ankles to ward off ticks, donning a blue raincoat, and wrapping the well-worn yellow fluorescent sign, reading "Humboldt Strong" on his back, setting off at a brisk pace that proves hard for others to keep up with.

All along his goal was to deliver this sign to the people of Humboldt, and all those still facing the scars from the April 6 Humboldt Broncos' team bus crash. And now, he's just about there.

Rance Cardinal thrusts his hands in the air or waves, each time drivers honk at him as they pass him on the highway. (CBC News)

Crossing provinces and seasons

I had talked to the 24-year-old man just a few days after he first set off on April 11, through snow and past frozen lakes of Ontario, with a readiness to pitch a tent and sleep under the stars if he had to. That was before his walk blew up, before a Facebook page dedicated to his walk grew to nearly 13,000 followers, before donations of food or rooms to stay began pouring in, and before people started hailing him as a "hero," and the "Terry Fox of Hockey."  

He meets those names with a sense of surprise.

When Rance Cardinal first set off from near his current home in Sioux Lookout, Ont. in mid-April, snow was still falling. (Submitted photo)

"I'm not doing this for money. I'm not doing this for fame," he says, explaining it was all driven by a desire to share healing and strength with people who were grieving, to keep up with the meaning of the phrase "Humboldt Strong."

It was a walk he felt compelled to do, having been a junior hockey player himself, who'd lost and mourned a brother and a former teammate.

He turned to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain, and it took years before he was able to get himself clear of those demons, he says.

"I don't want anyone else to turn to the bottle."

And as much as he wants to lend strength and healing to others, he notes he felt his own healing begin as soon as he crossed the border to Saskatchewan. He's a father now to his two-year-old son, with his girlfriend expecting the couple's second child, a girl, in mere weeks, and he wants to be able to get a job and provide for them.

"I'm going to step up, step up in life."

In the orbit of the sun

Walking with Cardinal is like being in the orbit of the sun. When I walk on my own, I'm conscious of how quiet it is, how long the distance feels. But when people see Cardinal, they blast their horns or holler out the window, and he responds with a holler or a wave each time.

Drivers slow to a stop and even turn back to greet him, some getting out to hand him water bottles, snacks, cash or other gifts. As he gets closer to Humboldt, those people stopping to greet him include family members and friends of the Broncos, whether its Jacob Leicht's parents or a cousin of Broncos' statistician Brody Hinz.

"Thank you for this," they tell him, shaking his hand. Several promise to see him the next day.

In his last stretch of walking on Saturday, before reaching Humboldt, several people stopped to exchange hugs and handshakes with Rance Cardinal. (CBC News)

It's striking to see people of all backgrounds uniting behind the First Nations man and his walk. That fact doesn't seem lost on Cardinal, even though he says that hadn't been a thought in his head when he started.

"Little did I know I was going to cause reconciliation. Little did I know I was going to cause healing," he says. "Little did I know I was going to spark the world."

As Saturday's rainy walk draws to an end, the sun breaks through the clouds and casts its blinding reflection over the highway. We don't see it yet, but a brilliant double-arched rainbow will soon be forming at our backs.

"Do you feel that?" Cardinal asks joyously. Yes, we do — it's electric, this crackling sense of anticipation.

When he sees the small crowd of about 10 people gathered at St. Gregor to greet him, he takes off at a run, a bundle of tightly coiled energy unleashed, as he hits his stride, stopping only to hug each of them at the end.

It looks like he's ready to run all the way to Humboldt.

The final day, Day 48

I wake up the next morning, just one of several people who can't sleep, keyed up for Rance Cardinal's arrival in Humboldt. No one can walk with him on the last leg of the journey, with construction taking place just outside of the city, so he'll take this final steps on his own.

But if I feel this excited, I can't imagine what it feels like for Cardinal's family. Dozens of his family and friends from his home community of Saddle Lake, Alta. have made the seven-hour journey to see him, with plans to wait for him at the finish line as he enters Humboldt.

His mother, Sherrie Lee Cardinal, hasn't seen her son in more than three years. He'd left home for a short trip to Ontario, but ended up meeting his now-girlfriend and staying there. 

"I knew we were going to see each other soon, but I didn't think it would be this way," she says with a laugh.

Dozens of Rance Cardinal's friends and family from Saddle Lake, Alta., made the trip to Humboldt to greet him at the finish line of his walk. (CBC News)

When she last saw her son, he was still suffering badly from the losses they both had endured.

"After my other son passed away, having to deal with all these broken hearts, it was so unreal. I would never wish that on anyone."

But as her son embarked on this walk, she's watched him opening up to people over Facebook videos, emerging as a more confident and outspoken young man.

"As days went on, the people he's touched, the lives he's touched — it's so beautiful to know that he's my son. It's an honour," she says."I am so proud. I am so honoured to have my parents, have my kids here to share this. It's totally awesome and crazy."

Among the signs reading Humboldt Strong and other signs for the Broncos, welcome signs for Rance Cardinal could be seen everywhere in Humboldt. (CBC News)

Humboldt's hero

The crowd is buzzing with anticipation as they gather at the city limits to welcome Cardinal to Humboldt. Children in Broncos jerseys, and T-shirts ask how much longer he will be.

Anna-Gail, 10, and her mother Becky Ell were among the Humboldt fans waiting for Rance Cardinal at the finish line of his journey. (CBC News)

Many who join in the walk agree that Cardinal "is healing this community," as one walker says.

"He's an inspiration to all of us here," says Humboldt's Becky Ell, standing next to her 10-year-old daughter, another big Rance Cardinal fan. "I just think he's shown so much strength and determination and it's fallen on all on us too. We feel his strength too.

"And it just gives us hope."

Family and friends of Dayna Brons, one of 16 people killed in the Broncos' team bus crash, brought special signs to welcome Rance Cardinal to the community. They shared the sentiment Cardinal was "healing the community." (CBC News)

A reunion in the making

When Cardinal arrives, he gives a great roar, hugging everyone on his path.

"Mom! Mom!" he says, exchanging a long hug with his mother and family members, and meeting some of the newest and youngest members of the Cardinal clan for the first time. 

It's a moment 48 days in the making.

His mother wipes the tears from her eyes as she joins with other hockey moms on this last leg of the journey, to Humboldt's Elgar Petersen arena, where the Cardinal family will join other Broncos' families and billet families. It's the place where Cardinal longs to be, the space where the game is played and will play on.

"He's got true hockey spirit in his heart," says his proud mother.

Rance Cardinal's family from Saddle Lake, Alta., were among the hundreds of people that gathered in Humboldt to greet him at the end of his 1,200 kilometre journey. (CBC News)

About the Author

Janani Whitfield

Janani Whitfield spent 10 years working in the newspaper industry in Alberta before joining CBC Saskatchewan as a web writer in 2017. Contact her at janani.whitfield@cbc.ca on on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.