HUMBOLDT, Sask. — The Humboldt Broncos emerged from tragedy Wednesday night, launching a new hockey season with the help of many of the players who survived the team’s deadly bus crash in April.
Eight of the surviving players dropped the puck in the ceremonial faceoff of the club’s first regular-season game since 16 were killed five months ago.
Kaleb Dahlgren, who is now playing university hockey in Ontario, said it was important to be there.
“I think it is a step in the healing process for sure,” he said. “Tonight definitely helps heal the wounds but it won’t for sure heal everything. There is still lots that need to be done.”
Some of their injuries were still apparent.
Xavier Labelle, who was initially mistaken as being among the dead, has a large scar running across his forehead down to his eye.
Goaltender Jacob Wassermann used a wheelchair to get onto the ice.
And while some of the survivors dropped the puck, two others suited up and played.
Brayden Camrud and Derek Patter are the only two players who were in the crash and are back on the Broncos this season.
Camrud overcame a severe concussion, loss of feeling in one of his arms and neck issues.
Patter and Camrud shared a brief hug after they skated onto the ice as the crowd stood and cheered.
Many family members were also there.
Dahlgren’s dad, Mark, was struck by the tribute photos outside the arena as he and his son pulled up.
“I just saw all the pictures of the people that passed on the bus and I just looked over at him and said: ‘Sure glad your picture’s not up there,’” he said. “We’re the lucky ones and we don’t take it for granted. Every day we are appreciative to have him with us.”
His son said it felt different pulling up to the rink and not playing.
“It felt like I moved on, onto the next chapter. I’m in university now and I’m on that hockey team now,” he said. “It’s a new chapter for me and it’s a new chapter for this team.”
But the game was difficult for at least one of the players who suffered lifelong injuries in the crash.
Former Broncos player Ryan Straschnitzki, who was paralyzed from the chest down in the crash, opted not to watch the season opener in person. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to watch the game on TV even though it’s been on his mind.
“It’s not my team anymore,” Straschnitzki said. “I wish them the best of luck but it’s not my team and it’s going to be hard to watch knowing that I should be out there.”
Tom Straschnitzki said he understands why his son might be hesitant.
“He should be playing in this home opener today as with the other players,” he said. “It’s a difficult day.”
Humboldt Mayor Robert Muench said he thinks the game marks a step forward for his small city.
“I think people were … really looking forward to the season getting going and seeing the new team and seeing the results of a lot of work from a lot of people getting the team back on the ice,” he said.
“In my mind, it’s kind of a new page, a new chapter in the book I guess moving forward as a community and as a team.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was to watch the game in Saskatoon, said all of Canada was cheering for the Broncos.
“To the people of Humboldt, know that we are with you. Know that we will continue to support you as you heal,” Trudeau said earlier in the day.
“You have us and 37 million fans cheering you on.”
The opponents Wednesday were the Nipawin Hawks — the same team the Broncos were travelling to face the night of the crash.
The Broncos will board a bus again Friday and head to Nipawin for a rematch.
Jamie Brockman, president of the Broncos, said the team is grateful for all the support it has received from across Canada and the world.
“We’re going to find out what our new normal is after today,” he said. “Hockey is back in Humboldt. We are strong and we are going to survive and we are going to move forward.”
The Broncos lost their coach, Darcy Haugan, in the crash. Former NHLer Nathan Oystrick takes his place.
“It’s a great day to be a Bronco, gentlemen” — something Haugan often told his players — is now inscribed outside the team’s dressing room.
— With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary. Follow @RyanBMcKenna and @BillGraveland on Twitter
Ryan McKenna, The Canadian Press