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For Humboldt Broncos billet parents, grief still lingers, and new players await
These families treated itinerant hockey players like their own children, and have been mourning ever since the bus crash that took 16 lives last spring. This season, as they welcome new Broncos into their homes, they reflect on the ones they lost, Marty Klinkenberg writes

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Saturday, December 15, 2018 – Page S1

HUMBOLDT, SASK. -- Caroline Locke wears a locket with Jaxon Joseph's name on it. Her eyes mist over when she clutches it.

Jaxon was a 20-year-old member of the Humboldt Broncos who lived with Caroline and her husband, Dennis; in the five months before April 6, they were his billet parents. He and the Lockes' three young children were like brothers and sisters.

Dennis, a mechanic, has a tattoo of two crossed hockey sticks, the date of Jaxon's death and his jersey number, 13, on his right forearm. A quilt fashioned by the young man's griefstricken girlfriend is draped over the couch. Two jerseys with his name on the back hang inside the front door. The couple still wear the sweaters to every home game.

"It doesn't take long for them to become a part of a family," Caroline says.

Every year, more than 5,000 aspiring junior hockey players needing a place to stay are welcomed into households across Canada. Some are as young as 15; none older than 21.

Billet parents take on responsibilities for young men and women far from home. They cook for them, do their laundry and nurse them back to health when they are ill as if they were their own children. They offer advice about dating, register them for school, help them study, celebrate their victories and console them in defeat.

When it comes time to say goodbye, it is hard to let go.

Nowhere has that ever been more difficult than in Humboldt, Sask.

The Lockes have been billet parents to three Broncos players in as many years: Tristen Elder, Jaxon and now Chase Felgueiras.

Tristen lived with them for parts of two seasons. He was traded on Nov. 1, 2017, the day after he took the Locke kids trick-or-treating. Jaxon, acquired by the Broncos from another A-level team in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, moved in the following day.

"By the third day, I called our team billet co-ordinator and said, 'Can we keep him?' " Caroline recalls. Billet agreements have a five-day grace period during which either party can back out.

"He had just cooked for himself and did all of the dishes."

Nobody was home when Jaxon arrived at the Locke house. The couple had instructed him to let himself in and make friends with the family's rambunctious, 120pound Rottweiler.

Jaxon loved Rango, and when nobody else was around, allowed him to wander all over the house - even the rooms where he was not allowed.

"I would come home from work and there would be clumps of dog hair all over from them playing together," Dennis says.

The family was on the way to the Broncos' playoff game in Nipawin when the team bus was struck by a semi-trailer at the intersection of Highways 35 and 335.

The worst accident of its kind in Canadian athletic history claimed the lives of 10 players between 16 and 21 years of age, along with two coaches, an athletic therapist, a broadcaster, the bus driver and a high school student volunteering as a statistician.

All 13 of the remaining passengers were injured, including two players who remain paralyzed and one who is still in the hospital recovering from a brain injury.

Caroline was talking on the phone with Jaxon's father, Chris, a former NHL defenceman and Edmonton firefighter, when they neared the accident site.

'It was horrific," Dennis says.

The Lockes handed their children off to someone at the scene and headed to the hospital in nearby Tisdale, where some of the victims were taken. There they consoled other families as they awaited news of their own.

The following day, Dennis accompanied the Joseph family as Jaxon's belongings were retrieved from the Broncos dressing room at the arena in Humboldt.

"It looked as if they had just left for the game," he says.

Like most of the other grieving billet parents, the couple decided to take in another Bronco this season anyway.

"It is not that we are forgetting," Caroline says. "It makes it easier to move on. We did not want to end on a note like that."

On the afternoon of April 6, Broncos players picked up a pregame meal, watched videos of previous games in their dressing room and boarded a bus for Nipawin, about two hours away. They trailed the Nipawin Hawks 3-1 in a sevengame playoff series and were determined to win that night and prolong the season.

The drive took them through the snowy countryside of southcentral Saskatchewan, past Muenster, where Brody Hinz, the 18-year-old statistician, now rests in a Catholic cemetery. He volunteered at a soup kitchen and taught Sunday school.

They passed Lake Lenore, the little town where Dayna Brons, the athletic trainer, attended school and was one of the few girls to play hockey. Broncos players would order a birthday cake for her every time they ate out - whether it was her birthday or not.

"She had about 58 birthdays last season," says Clinton Thiel, the team's assistant equipment manager. The route to Nipawin took them along the main street in Tisdale, passing the hospital where some of them would soon be treated, and a Pentecostal tabernacle with a "Jesus Saves" sign out front.

It was about 20 minutes later, a little after 5 p.m., that the accident occurred. Photos show the bus on its side with much of the front half missing and the roof ripped off. The semi-trailer, the driver of which has been charged with 16 counts of dangerous driving causing death and 13 counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm, was on its side a short distance away. Hockey bags and sleeping bags were scattered on the ground.

Three helicopters, five planes and numerous ambulances responded to the scene. At the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, more than 200 kilometres to the southwest, doctors, nurses and surgeons worked frantically for 12 hours to save victims' lives.

Families rushed to Saskatchewan from all over Canada, joining the overwhelmed billet parents.

"None of us slept for a long time," Caroline Locke says.

As days passed and funerals began, a memorial grew beside the highway where the crash had occurred.

A few weeks ago, snow partially covered the roadside shrine 29 kilometres north of Tisdale.

There is a cross for each of the 16 victims. Hockey sticks lean against each one.

There is a red bow tie at the top of Logan Schatz's - the Broncos captain wore them all the time. A fishing lure dangles from Jacob Leicht's - he was an outdoorsman. A copy of the movie Slap Shot rests against Logan Boulet's.

After the collision, the video was found in the snow. Headphones wrap around Tyler Bieber's, the radio play-by-play man for all of the Broncos' games.

There are messages left by broken-hearted loved ones, too: a birthday card for Dayna, who would have turned 25 on May 21, a Christmas card for Adam Herold.

The 16-year-old was the youngest victim of the crash.

Flowers and teddy bears abound.

"I am so proud of you my son," reads a note left for Jaxon by his father, who once played for the Edmonton Oilers. "I will love you always."

Kathleen Keen was on maternity leave in the summer of 2016 when she heard that the Humboldt Broncos needed billet families.

She volunteered to take in two players, and a few months later accepted the position as the team's billet co-ordinator when nobody else expressed interest.

At 27, the mother of three jokes that she runs a halfway house for hockey players. She has each of them stay with her for a day or two before they are placed with a family.

Boys who are quiet and withdrawn are sent to live with older couples. The ones who immediately play floor hockey with her kids go to a younger family.

"It sounds silly, but it works," she says.

Nineteen families in Humboldt have taken in players this season. Most of the young men are from Western Canada, but there are several from the United States.

Billet families receive a small daily stipend for each player in their charge, but it can be gone by the time they eat breakfast.

"I am very grateful to my billets," Keen says. "The organization couldn't run without them.

They go above and beyond."

She is a nurse at the hospital in Humboldt and operates like a personal assistant to the billet families, the players and their families back home.

When she heard the bus had been in an accident, she rushed to the team office at its home rink.

From there she faxed information to hospitals: the boys' health card numbers, allergies, contact information for parents.

She fielded calls from distraught family members and passed on updates when she got them. After a while, the scope of the disaster became clear, and she fell back on her training as a health-care worker.

"I never cried," she says. "I was focused on what needed to be done."

She was one of three people who sorted through team members' belongings at the site of the crash.

On the Saturday, parents were given access to the dressing room.

They were allowed to take everything but the name bars above their sons' lockers: In their despair, she did not want anyone to imagine their son being alone.

"I wanted them to feel like the team was still there," she says.

In the following days, she recruited billet parents to help sort through the mail that had begun to pour in. There was enough to fill the office twice.

"I knew the people that could understand what they were going through were other billets," she says, seated in the office. "They would come here and it would be a safe place for them."

She worried many would be so overwhelmed with grief that they would not entertain being a billet again. As the summer wore on, she identified additional billet families should they be needed.

"I didn't want anyone to feel they had to do it," she says. "I wanted them to know they could step away if they could."

All but one came back.

Rene Cannon and her husband, Devin, grew up in Nipawin. Her dad was president of the Junior-A Hawks for several seasons, and her parents billeted players for 10 years.

But she never expected to become a billet mom herself in 2013 when she and Devin and their two daughters - then five and eight - moved to Humboldt.

Shortly after they relocated, one of Devin's co-workers asked if he would consider joining the Broncos board of directors. He agreed, then volunteered to become the team's billet co-ordinator as well.

Rene was not ready to take in players permanently, but she told him she would allow it on an asneeded emergency basis. That occurred on Sept. 10, 2013 - and the Cannons have welcomed 20 players into their home since then.

"What I realized that first evening was that every player that walks into my home is someone else's son trying to chase his dream of playing hockey for as long as he can," Rene wrote in an e-mail. (Her heart and mind are full of things she wants to say, but she is so easily overwhelmed emotionally that she could not say them in person, agreeing to share them in writing instead.)

"In the first year of billeting, I watched my two girls open their hearts to the idea of a brother.

[They] have learned valuable lessons about boundaries, love, apologizing when you are wrong, and disappointment."

Her family still mourns the deaths of two players who lived with them last year, Logan Hunter and Adam Herold.

A third Bronco who lived with the Cannons, Xavier LaBelle, survived the crash but broke 20 bones and sustained other serious injuries.

Over the past five years, her family has celebrated their billet sons' birthdays with them. They include them in pumpkin-carving and gingerbread-decorating contests. The boys pitch in to decorate the Christmas tree and constantly tease the girls as they play board games with them, ministicks in the basement or shoot baskets in the driveway.

Rene dislikes the goodbyes that have to be said at the end of each season, but this year has been especially difficult.

After countless conversations, the family decided to open their home again this season. Since the start of training camp, four different players have lived with them.

"Over all, there was no other decision for us to make than to billet for so many reasons," Rene wrote. "To begin, other people's sons needed homes and love. It seems very simple in that respect.

Also, in a way, we honour Logan Hunter and Adam Herold by continuing to billet. We would not have met them if not for billeting, and will be forever grateful for knowing them."

Within hours of landing in the Cannons' home, Adam was rummaging around the kitchen for snacks. Emerging, he asked, "Those chocolates in the pantry, I assume they are for everyone?" Rene's daughters have loved every player the family has taken in. As she took the floor during a dance recital two weeks after the accident, Tessa, now 11, blew kisses to heaven. Abbie, 14, wrote a message on Logan's cross.

"Love you so much," it says.

"You will forever be my big brother, and I will always be your little sister. Score some goals for me up there."

It is more than seven months since the bus crash, and Humboldt has slowly started to heal.

A decision has been reached on how $15.2-million raised through a Go Fund Me account will be distributed. A committee has been struck to explore putting up a permanent monument.

Fans crowd into the arena to cheer for the team, which has only two players from last year and is near the top of the standings.

During a tryout camp in the spring, Mike Babcock, the Toronto Maple Leafs coach, came to help out. So did Jered Bednar, the coach of the Colorado Avalanche.

Connor McDavid, the Oilers superstar, paid a visit, as did other NHL players. The Stanley Cup was brought to the city and laid down among the crosses at the accident site.

A memorial has been established inside the Broncos rink. It includes a sign made by inmates at the Prince Albert penitentiary, an award given to Logan Boulet posthumously for donating his organs and a hockey stick signed by last year's team. Auctioned off in 2017, it was returned to serve as a talisman.

A golf tournament this summer raised $95,000 for the Broncos organization. Each hole was dedicated to a team member who died last year. A Buckle Up campaign has been initiated to remind bus passengers the importance of wearing seat belts.

"The community is trying to come to terms with what happened and move on at the same time," Humboldt Mayor Rob Muench says.

There are tributes to the Broncos at a museum downtown and an art gallery across the street.

A business called the Haus of Stitches has received almost 4,000 quilts from people all over the world. The store's owner, Wendy Toye, announced on Facebook on April 7 that she would make 29 to honour each person that had been aboard the bus.

Within a day or two, as requests came in, she realized she might need 200 and put out a call for help on social media.

"Our phone never stopped ringing," she says.

The quilts are now being given to the players' families, billet families, first responders and healthcare providers, teachers, kids that Tyler Bieber coached in flag football, local students, school counsellors and all of the team's current players.

Billet moms are helping distribute them.

Laurie Warford grew up in Humboldt and had a cousin who played for the Broncos. Over the past decade, she and her husband, Dudley, have been billet parents to 16 players and three trainers.

"There is another mouth to feed and extra shoes at the door," she says. "It is no big deal."

The couple's three children - Shelby, 13, Colten, 15, and Taryn, 23 - have grown up surrounded by Broncos. Colten is a first year midget hockey player.

"As far as role models, it is huge for him to have these boys in his life," Laurie says.

Last season, the family's billet was Evan Thomas, an 18-year-old from Saskatoon. Instead of going home last Easter, he spent the weekend with the Warfords.

He was shy, loved video games, enjoyed playing Scrabble and hoped to be a doctor. He loved Kraft Dinner so much that Shelby left a box of it at a memorial on the arena's stairs the day after the tragedy.

Evan would eat it out of the pot as he stood in the kitchen.

"Evan had his own recipe," Shelby says as she munches Goldfish crackers - they were Evan's favourite. After his death, she moved into the room where he lived.

As usual, Laurie worked until 5 p.m. that day. She texted Evan to wish him good luck a few minutes later. She thought it was unlike him not to message back.

Then she heard the team had been in an accident, but didn't panic.

"They were in a bus," she says.

"How bad could it be?" She phoned Evan's mom to alert her, but told her she didn't know any details.

Then she received a call from a fellow billet parent who had driven to the crash scene.

"She told me it looked bad," Laurie says. "That is when the waterworks began."

It was almost four hours before she learned that Evan had died.

She heard it from a former billet who lives in Hamilton.

"Hockey is a small world," she says. "There is a connection everywhere."

The Warford family misses Evan terribly, but never considered not billeting another player.

"The thought never crossed our minds," Laurie says. "The hockey team had to go on, and boys needed a place to live. We wanted a billet more than we ever had before.

"You don't do it for financial reward or gratification. You do it to help another family and to give other parents peace of mind. Until the accident, we didn't know how much it meant."

There was only the need for one new billet family in Humboldt and Scott and Tammy Ruedig filled the void this year.

Their 11-year-old son, Kohen, plays spring hockey in Yorkton, Sask., and they heard about a 17year-old from there who would be coming to play for the Broncos in the fall and needed a place to stay.

Kohen and his eight-year-old brother, Kayd, had begged their parents to get them a Bronco for years. When they announced it was finally going to happen, they recorded it and sent it to the player, Zack McIntyre.

"We got one, we got one," the boys squealed.

Kohen and Kayd now sleep in Broncos toques and have a huge team logo on their bedroom wall.

They have a collection of hockey sticks and mitts signed by this year's players.

The morning after the accident, Tammy awoke to find Kohen in bed with them, hands clasped and saying a prayer for the players who died.

"To open up your home to a complete stranger is a little daunting," she says.

She did it anyway. She and Scott had been season-ticket holders for 11 years.

"I kept thinking, 'What if that is one of our kids one day,' " she says. "We are a hockey family. If they are lucky enough to get a chance like this, I want them to be in a home like ours."

Associated Graphic

Crosses and memorabilia are seen at a makeshift memorial where the Broncos bus collided with a semi-trailer in Nipawin, Sask. KAYLE NEIS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Wendy Toye, owner of Haus of Stitches, folds quilts in her shop. Toye's received countless of quilts made in support of the Humboldt Broncos. PHOTOS BY KAYLE NEIS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

When she heard about the accident, billet co-ordinator Kathleen Keen raced to the scene and supported families. "I never cried," she says. "I was focused on what needed to be done"

Tammy Ruedig stands with her son Kohen at Elgar Petersen Arena. The 11-year season-ticket holder's family was the only new billet family needed this year.

Humboldt Broncos forward Mitchell Girolami walks toward the dressing room after the first period during a game at Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt, Sask.

From left: Taryn Warford, Colten Warford, Laurie Warford and Shelby Warford. In the past decade, Laurie and her husband have been billet parents to 16 players and three trainers.

Dennis and Caroline Locke were the billet parents of Jaxson Joseph, who died in the crash. Despite the pain of the loss, the Lockes have decided to continue as billet parents.

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