'A blessing to be here together': Humboldt Broncos survivors to attend NHL Awards
Kaleb Dahlgren pushes Ryan Straschnitzki’s wheelchair up a ramp and onto a riser.
Tyler Smith follows right behind and takes his spot in front of a sea of cameras and microphones inside a vast luxury hotel ballroom.
It’s not how they wanted it to be, but the Humboldt Broncos, some of them at least, are finally back together.
“Sharing stories and just kind of being (as much of) a team as we can again is important,” Smith said Tuesday. “We can cry together, we can do everything together and just kind of heal in our own way.
“It’s just a blessing to be here together.”
The Broncos were travelling together to a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoff game on April 6 when their bus collided with a truck – a devastating crash on a flat, lonely stretch of Prairie highway that resulted in the deaths of 16 people, including 10 players.
Of the 13 that survived, 10 are at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas at the invitation of the league and NHLPA.
“It’s been fantastic,” said Straschnitzki, who was paralysed from the chest down. “These guys are such great guys to be around. It warms my heart. I’m really excited.”
The remaining Broncos had not been in the same place since the crash, with nine of them flying into Las Vegas on Monday before Straschnitzki joined on Tuesday from Philadelphia where he’s undergoing physiotherapy.
“You want to always go see your teammates,” Dahlgren said. “You’re with them four hours every day. You miss them. It’s nice to give everybody a hug and be with each other in this time.
“I’m just thankful that we’re all here together.”
The NHL Awards on Wednesday night will include a tribute to the Broncos, while Humboldt head coach Darcy Haugan, who was killed in the crash, is posthumously nominated for the inaugural Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.
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One of Haugan’s slogans for his team was “It’s a Good Day to be a Bronco” – something his surviving players continue to live by.
“It was a very important quote,” Smith said. “A lot of guys will take that with us for the rest of our lives.
“We’re all going to be Broncos forever. No matter what day it is, it’s a great day to be a Bronco.”
The tragedy not only devastated the tight-knit community and province, but shook the hockey world as players and coaches from junior all the way up to the NHL reflected on the countless hours spent with teammates crisscrossing the country in buses on rural, wind-swept, winter roads.
“It means so much for hockey and for all the NHL players to be able to come and share a few words with them and talk and just joke around with them,” said Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, who is up for the Ted Lindsay Award. “It’s great to see them here. Just think about how far they’ve come from only a short time ago.
“To see them here is really uplifting for all of us.”
Dahlgren said it didn’t take long for the Broncos to get back to some of the banter that used to echo through their locker room.
“We’re still giving each other the gears sometimes,” he said. “It’s good to have humour. You have to make the most of every situation that you’re in.
“We’re trying to be positive and have a good time with each other.”
Smith said the Broncos were far and away the closest team he was ever part of.
“Either way we would have been a family until the end,” he said. “That’s what made everything really hard. There’s one wish I had for my birthday – to bring everybody back and just be together once again.”
That they are, just with a big chunk of their heart still missing.