The population of Humboldt, Sask. is just a shade under 5,900, and like many small communities that dot the Canadian Prairies, it’s a hockey town.
I’ve never been there, but I know. If you’ve ever been to a community of similar size in this country, you probably know, too. The first reporting job I ever had was in a town like that – Peace River, Alta.
The population there is about the same as Humboldt – 6,000 and change. A little higher on weekends if a visiting hockey team was in town, and a little less if the junior ‘B’ Peace Air Navigators were on the road, or fans followed the senior-league Peace River Stampeders down the highway a few miles for a game in nearby Grimshaw.
I spent nine months in that town – one full hockey season, from opening puck drop to the championship game. I may not have stayed long, but my best reporting stories – those ones you retell over and over again – come from there.
Those memories came flooding back Friday evening, when news broke that a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos – a junior ‘A’ hockey team in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League – had been in a terrible accident, killing 14.
Among those killed were former Surrey Eagles player Jaxon Joseph and Broncos’ head coach Darcy Haugan, who was the coach of the Navigators during my one season in Peace River.
My big little brother, Darcy. The tears just keep coming... pic.twitter.com/HyhpQ4PIhe— invisigirlonfire (@DebbieJayneC) April 7, 2018
I loved covering that team – they were a dominant group, barely losing a game all year – but if truth be told, I was never really cut out for Northern Alberta. I don’t think I even had a winter coat, and I refused to buy snow tires for my car.
Darcy – Peace River, born and raised – knew it too. I mean, how could he not? Once, while watching practice, I got stuck to the back wall of the local rink when my windbreaker (good for sub-zero winters, I’m sure) froze to the wall, like a tongue on a lamp post.
It didn’t take me long to realize that as good a coach as he was, Darcy was a better person. One memory sticks out.
It was after a game, the Navigators having just dispatched another opponent with ease. I’d been late to the rink earlier that evening, and parking was scarce. Not wanting to miss a moment, I parked my car the only place I could find, and drove up and over a small mound of snow and ice.
After the game, I mentioned to Darcy where I’d parked, and without a second of pause, he went into the locker room and dragged a few tired players out.
“Go help Nick push his car out of the snow,” he said.
And that’s how, late on a frigid Saturday night in Northern Alberta, four junior ‘B’ hockey players ended up pushing some idiot reporter’s Honda Civic out of a snowbank.
In the days and weeks to come, there will no doubt be more stories like that – about not just Darcy, but his players, too.
Stories will be shared. Tears will be shed, and good people will be rightly remembered.
And it may seem a long way off right now, but one day, people – and a community – will begin to heal.
But like the ill-prepared reporter without a winter jacket, it’s going to feel cold for a while.
Nick Greenizan is a sports reporter at the Peace Arch News.