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GiveLife.ca

    

PRINT EDITION
'The toughest job in hockey'
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The sport moves life across the country, perhaps nowhere more potently than in Humboldt, Sask., where the desire to get another team on the ice after last year's deadly bus crash drew coaches from across North America to rebuild a program and community rocked by tragedy
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By MARTY KLINKENBERG
  
  

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Saturday, April 6, 2019 – Page S3

It was quickly decided that another team would be assembled after the 2018 crash that killed most of the Humboldt Broncos.

Players would be secured for the next season through trades and a special draft within the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

Tryouts were arranged.

There was another huge hurdle. Darcy Haugan, the Broncos general manager and head coach, died in the tragedy on April 6, 2018. His top assistant, Mark Cross, was also among the fatalities.

Haugan was religious, a husband and father to two young boys. He took over the team on short notice in 2015 when the coach at the time accepted a position elsewhere.

Cross played hockey in Toronto at York University for five years and was hired as Haugan's assistant shortly before the 2017-18 season. He was so excited about the job that his partner of 10 years cried tears of joy.

Two months before the accident, as part of an exercise in a nursing class, Molly Schnell had to write about how losing him and other loved ones would affect her life. It was unfathomable at the time.

The Broncos were on their way to a playoff game when their bus collided with a semi-trailer seconds after it ran through a stop sign. The truck driver has been sentenced to prison for eight years.

Chris Beaudry, another assistant to Haugan, wasn't on the chartered motor coach. He came upon the scene in his own car 20 minutes later.

The things he saw and heard caused post-traumatic stress disorder. Sixteen people, including 10 players, died. The other 13 passengers, all players, were injured.

A service of remembrance will be held in the Broncos' home rink at 4:30 on Saturday afternoon.

"It is a tough week and a tough weekend," Beaudry says.

He lost his passion for teaching and coaching after the accident and doesn't foresee doing it again.

"I have lost part of myself," he said in February while giving a victim-impact statement at the truck driver's sentencing hearing. "I am not the same person I was on the morning of April 6.

"So much of this seems unbearable, but when you are forced to bear the unbearable, something dies in you."

He nonetheless agreed to pitch in and help Jason Neville, the Broncos' assistant general manager, during a May tryout camp.

Mike Babcock and Jared Bednar, the coaches of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche, respectively, also helped assess talent.

The search for a head coach continued through June.

"It was not a normal situation," says Kevin Garinger, a member of the Broncos board of governors.

"Some have called it the toughest job in hockey." On July 3, Nathan Oystrick, a former NHL defenceman, was brought in as head coach. In turn, he hired Scott Barney, another former NHL player, as his first lieutenant.

Oystrick, who played 65 games for the Atlanta Thrashers, Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues, was living in Colorado and coaching a school team when the crash happened.

"Being a kid who grew up in Saskatchewan, when I heard the news, it hit home pretty hard," Oystrick says by phone from Colorado, to which he has returned.

"Going into it, I had no idea what to expect. I couldn't even pretend to know what I was getting into. I just put my head down and started working away."

Eighty players were on hand when training camp began at the end of August. Only three crash survivors returned, along with two holdovers from 2017-18 who had not been aboard the bus.

"There were a few, 'I don't know about this' moments when we started, but the boys came together pretty quickly," Barney says. "Even though they were nearly all new, everybody bonded from Day 1."

The season began with a narrow loss on Sept. 12 in a game that was televised across the country by TSN. By November, the Broncos were sailing along. They were 21-8 and near the top of the standings.

Then they lost eight of 10 and Oystrick stepped down. He said he was leaving in a message on Twitter. Neither he nor the team will discuss his departure.

"I can't talk about that," he says politely.

Barney immediately took over as interim head coach. The Broncos finished the regular season with a record of 35-19-3, their best in seven years. They made the playoffs, but lost to the Estevan Bruins in overtime in the seventh game of the first round.

This week, Barney was given a three-year contract extension as coach and was also handed the job of general manager.

He is 40 and from Oshawa, Ont.

He is a former captain of the Peterborough Petes of the OHL and played in parts of three seasons for the Los Angeles Kings and Atlanta Thrashers.

He spent most of the past 10 years in Europe and Asia, most recently as a player and part-time coach in 2017-18 for the Anyang Halla in the Asian Hockey League.

The Halla is the oldest team in South Korea, and 14 of his teammates played last season for the country's Olympic squad.

He took a few months off once the 2018 season was over, but then applied for a position in Humboldt.

"I had decided to take a break from hockey, but it looked like a great opportunity to give something back after being a player for all of these years," he says. "It was a unique situation, but one where I felt I could lend a hand."

He is preparing for a minicamp at the end of the month and the bantam draft this summer - and awaiting the arrival of his wife, Tara, and their two young children.

They are about to move from Ontario to Humboldt to join him.

"They will love the sense of community," he says.

"I am not from Saskatchewan, but as soon as I got there everyone was so receiving. It is a small city where everyone knows each other, and it feels like home now."

He aspires to move up the coaching ranks, but is thrilled with the opportunity the Broncos have afforded him.

"If you are a hockey guy, you enjoy it," he says.

Garinger said this week that the team was grateful to Oystrick and Barney for stepping in under unusual circumstances and at such a hard time.

"The biggest hurdles were overcome early, and then Scott stepped in and kept us moving forward," Garinger says. "We are very proud of the work that was done. I have nothing but the highest respect for both of them.

"I know the job they had to do was a challenging one."

There are more challenges, and there is more healing, ahead. One year can seem like a blur or a lifetime. Hockey helps life move on in Humboldt.

Associated Graphic

Hockey fans in Humboldt, Sask., pack the stands at Elgar Petersen Arena to watch the Broncos take on the Estevan Bruins on March 24. In the year since 16 people lost their lives in a tragic bus crash, the team and the community that encircles it have been through a lot.

MATTHEW SMITH/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Then-head coach Nathan Oystrick stands with returning Bronco Brayden Camrud during a practice on Sept. 11, 2018, the day before their nationally televised opener.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS


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