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'Learn to live with this': Humboldt focuses on future 5 years after bus crash

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HUMBOLDT -

Kevin Garinger says it feels like the passage of time is inexplicable. The five years since a deadly bus crash changed his city, his hockey team and his life sometimes feel like a lifetime. Other times it feels like yesterday.

"I don't know if anyone ever heals from significant loss or tragedy," Garinger says after a moment of deep thought in his Humboldt, Sask., office.

"You eventually just learn to live with this."

Garinger was the president of the Humboldt Broncos when 16 people died and 13 were injured after a transport truck went through a stop sign and into the path of a bus carrying the Saskatchewan junior hockey team on April 6, 2018.

The CEO of the Horizon School Division, whose term at the helm of the hockey team has ended, was unexpectedly thrust into an international spotlight after the crash. So was his community and team.

Now, Garinger says, the intense focus has faded but the small Saskatchewan city east of Saskatoon is still figuring out how to exist within that legacy.

At first, he says, kids couldn't make sense of what happened and some were even afraid to get on buses. A few families moved away. As months turned to years, the grief seemed less immediate, Garinger says, less debilitating.

"You learn to live with a hole in your heart that never heals."

Humboldt is a hockey town.

The city has a population of just over 6,000, but the Broncos average 1,000 fans in the stands at the Elgar Petersen Arena each home game.

"Back in the day, when I was younger than I am now, you hung out at the rink," said Rob Muench, a city councillor who was mayor at the time of the crash.

"We grew up playing hockey and we grew up watching the hockey teams playing."

The Broncos were first established in 1970, and a team photo from the following year shows 20 players and four coaches wearing white and green jerseys. Each following year, most of the faces in the team photo change, as do haircuts and moustaches.

But each picture shows a group of young hockey players with big dreams.

The Humboldt Broncos' current roster of young players have no direct connection to the team from five years ago. The youngest players were in Grade 6 when it happened.

They are in the midst of an exciting playoff run after beating out the Nipawin Hawks in the first round. In the initial matchup against the Hawks -- a longtime Humboldt rival and the first team they played following the crash -- the Broncos quickly scored two goals and fans roared with applause. The Broncos won 5-1.

That same rink was a place of mourning five years ago as thousands of people came together and heard the team's chaplain struggle to describe "the valley of darkness" he saw at the crash site.

Now, the ice once again sees a group of young men full of dreams wearing green and gold jerseys.

"I think it's an honour for those kids to put on that Humboldt Broncos jersey," says head coach and general manager Scott Barney.

Barney joined the team as assistant coach in the year after the crash. Before coaching, he played 19 years of professional hockey, including 27 games in the National Hockey League.

"Anybody who has played junior hockey has been on buses before and I travelled millions of hours on there," Barney says.

They may not talk about the 2018 team every day, but there is evidence of it throughout the arena. There are 29 banners that represent each person on the bus and a memorial with the 2018 team photo behind glass. The numbers of all the players have also been retired.

"We play for them every day," Barney says.

The end goal for any team is to win the championship, Barney says, but it would mean even more this year. They have a good group, he says, a mix between younger and experienced players.

He adds Humboldt's support and strength over the last five years has allowed the team to return, to build and to grow.

"Without the community, we wouldn't be a team," he says.

Broncos players have changed many times in the years since the crash, so have the team's board members.

"The one connection from then until now is the fan base," Muench says.

At the recent game, the stands were a sea of Broncos shirts, hats and toques. These seats are where the memory of the tragedy is more pronounced, especially with season ticket holders who the team says have continued to come out in droves.

Carol Brons was sitting in the top row watching the team her 24-year-old daughter, Dayna Brons, loved so much. Dayna Brons was the team's athletic therapist when she was killed in the crash.

The team and the town are looking to focus on positive things that have been created after the catastrophe.

Green Shirt Day honours defenceman Logan Boulet and encourages organ donation. Northern Lights Movement for Kids was created by the family of Jacob Leicht to help bridge gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids. The Adam Herold Legacy Foundation helps Saskatchewan youth develop hockey and leadership skills. Many other funds were started to honour the players.

The crash also inspired the creation of Hockey Gives Blood, as well as numerous scholarships and bursaries.

An entire floor at the city's museum is dedicated to a rotating exhibit of the tens of thousands of items received from around the world after the crash.

More than 210 kilometres northeast of Humboldt on the side of a highway there are a cluster of crosses with the names of each person who died in the crash. The Humboldt Broncos Memorial Committee intends to create a permanent roadside memorial there.

Across from the crosses, at the intersection of Highway 35 and Highway 335, is a new gigantic stop sign.

Back in Humboldt, Garinger's office is also still filled with Broncos memorabilia, but he finds it difficult to sit down and just enjoy a hockey game these days. Individuals will be at varying places, he says, but as time marches on, the community is moving forward.

"There's no real road map for how to deal with this."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.

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