The Stanley Cup hit the road before sunrise Friday. Howie Borrow and Walt Neubrand, the Cup’s escorts from the Hockey Hall of Fame, left Saskatoon at 5 a.m. and drove more than two hours northeast through the prairies to the intersection of Highways 35 and 335.
It was there on April 6 when the bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League collided with a truck that left 16 dead and injured 13 others.
The place is now a memorial. Borrow and Neubrand took the Cup out of its crate, set it among the crosses, flowers, Canadian flags and hockey sticks, and each said a silent prayer.
“I was honored to be able to do this,” Neubrand said.
#StanleyCup visits Humboldt Broncos memorial site. While their Stanley Cup dreams went unfulfilled, we thought we’d bring Stanley to them. God Bless RIP Saskatchewan highway intersection #35 & #335) @NHL @HockeyHallFame @HumboldtBroncos #HumboldtStrong pic.twitter.com/ST3eUfXCIg
— Philip Pritchard (@keeperofthecup) August 24, 2018
Then, in the morning light, Borrow and Neubrand turned around and drove more than an hour southwest to meet Washington Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson for Humboldt Hockey Day, an event hosted by the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association to support the community and start the Broncos’ season.
“That means so much to me,” said former Broncos forward Kaleb Dahlgren, who was injured in the crash. “I know those people who lost their lives there would really appreciate that, and I appreciate it too.”
Stephenson grew up in Saskatoon and trained with Dahlgren and former Broncos forward Brayden Camrud, who was also injured in the crash. As the Capitals advanced in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he thought about bringing the Cup to Humboldt. As soon as they won it, he texted Dahlgren to say he was coming.
The NHL and the NHLPA wanted to help, too, while being sensitive and striking the right balance. Andrew Ference, a former NHL defenseman who is now NHL director of social impact, growth and fan development, said they asked the town of Humboldt and the Broncos organization, “How can we support you and what can we do and what do you want?”
This was the result.
“We’re at a loss for what’s the right thing to do, and nobody knows,” Ference said. “What we do know is, when you can bring people together into the room so you can hug and you can talk to each other and just be around each other, I think there’s something very powerful about that.”
Stephenson carried the Cup into Elgar Petersen Arena around 10:30 a.m. First, he shared it privately with the families and the billets of those involved in the accident.
“All you can do is give your condolences,” Stephenson said. “Nothing can replace a life, so you just try to help out as much as you can. That’s what this day was all about.”
Dahlgren called it a “healing room.”
“I was holding back tears, for sure,” Dahlgren said.
Stephenson shared the Cup with the public next. The line stretched around the building and snaked through Hockey Hall of Fame exhibits focusing on players from the province like goaltender Glenn Hall, who was born in Humboldt. Stephenson posed for pictures and signed autographs.
Eighteen other current and former NHL players participated in activities with fans.
There was Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb playing ball hockey, playfully bumping a kid in the back, making him laugh. It’s not often you see a player from losing team in the Stanley Cup Final at a Cup day, but …
“It’s an important day,” said McNabb, who grew up in Davidson. “Being from here, it kind of hit close to home. We’re all happy to be here to put smiles on kids’ faces and help the community heal. We’re here to do whatever we need to do to help.”
There was St. Louis Blues center Brayden Schenn signing autographs, former NHL forward Adam Graves posing for pictures and free agent NHL forward Scott Hartnell chatting with people.
“Just talking about today, your body starts shaking,” said Hartnell, who grew up in Lloydminster. “You don’t know if you’re going to cry or not.”
There was former NHL defenseman Wade Redden working the Accuracy Challenge. There were kids wearing Calgary Flames hats taking on Flames center Mark Jankowski in Target Practice, firing pucks at an old stackable washer and dryer as if they were brothers in the basement.
“They don’t have to be here,” said former NHL defenseman Chris Joseph, who lost his son, Jaxon, in the accident. “The fact that they are here shows that the hockey community is a family.”
There are reminders of what happened everywhere: a cross with the names of the 16 who died inside the front door of the arena, a display case in the hallway, a banner overhead, a ribbon painted on the ice. The 2017-18 Broncos will never be forgotten.
But at 3 p.m., as crews packed up after Humboldt Hockey Day, registration began for training camp for the 2018-19 Broncos.
“There’s been a lot of sadness in this rink, and today’s about celebrating and moving forward,” Broncos president Jamie Brockman said.
A little before 5 p.m., for the first time since the accident, players wearing the Broncos logo took the ice. Nathan Oystrick, the new coach, blew his whistle, and the boys went right into drills.
“I think we all collectively want to give these kids a big hug, tell them we love them, tell them we wish them well and let them get to playing some hockey,” Joseph said.
His eyes teared up.
“It’s hard,” he said. “There’s been a lot of memorial stuff going on, and I think everybody’s done a good job of trying to remember our team from last year.
“But today we all recognize this is an opportunity to acknowledge that hockey’s back, hockey’s in Humboldt, the Broncos are back, and as much as we all want to remember our team from last year, we really want the Broncos to succeed. We really want them to heal, we want the town to heal, and this is a big step. Today’s a big step for that.”