In the hours that followed the horrific Humboldt Broncos bus crash on the evening of April 6, 2018 and as the full scope of the tragedy was being realized, there was that photo — three young men on hospital beds holding hands.
Teammates Derek Patter, Nick Shumlanski and Graysen Cameron were clinging to one another.
In that moment they could have never known what was before them. But that scene, in those painful early days, was powerful.
Patter, a 20-year-old forward, suffered bleeding outside his brain, as well as right shin and fibula fractures, a nasal bone fracture and significant cuts and bruises.
Shumlanski, a 21-year-old forward, sustained a fractured bone behind his ear and a lumbar avulsion fracture but walked away from the crash.
Both were able to resume playing hockey the next season.
Cameron was wedged between Patter and Shumlanski wearing a neck brace. He suffered a broken back, concussion and eye injury — playing hockey again wasn’t even in the realm of consideration.
“I was obviously told I couldn’t play after breaking my back. I accepted the fact that I wouldn’t play again.” Cameron told CBC Sports this week.
But the 20-year-old from Olds, Alta. would play again. And is now on a path he thought had disappeared.
Cameron struggles to find the words to describe his recovery. His rehabilitation has been nothing short of remarkable. Seven months after breaking his back in April 2018 he underwent surgery to “remove some hardware” still left in his body — screws along his spine and steel rod.
“That’s when the doctor said I could get those out and it would be a possibility to play again,” Cameron said.
That flicker of hope fanned a burning desire deep within Cameron to keep moving forward and perhaps one day step back out onto the ice.
There were dark days to be sure. But it was in those still, quiet, searching moments he was getting clearer on how he wanted to live his life.
I would say the last year things have changed the most on how I look at life. Perspective is the big one.– Graysen Cameron on his recovery
“I think that’s when you learn the most about yourself. A lot of things I never thought I would deal with before. It was a big wake-up call for me,” Cameron said. “I would say the last year things have changed the most on how I look at life. Perspective is the big one.
“You can always find ways to look at things negatively and you can always find ways to look at things positively.”
Just two months after that final surgery to remove all the steel from his body in November 2018, Cameron was walking. Cautious, slow, heavy steps. But it wasn’t long after that he was working out again.
Getting back into hockey, which seemed impossible, was now starting to come into focus.
“I didn’t want to get too excited about it in case it didn’t work out but inside I was ecstatic,” Cameron said.
Cameron started walking with ease, working out lightly and making his move back into the game.
His first stop on the journey back was with his former Midget AAA team, the Red Deer Optimist Chiefs. There, he spent a season as an assistant coach, every so often putting on the skates and working out with the team.
“It was awful. I was so out of shape,” Cameron said. “Once I got the go-ahead from the doctor to go full steam, the first two or three ice times were not so fun.”
WATCH | Cameron on the path to recovery:
But the rush of being on the ice again, when he was resigned to never being able to lace up his skates for the rest of his life, was exhilarating. And it wasn’t long after that he got a sign it was time to return back to Humboldt.
One of the Broncos scouts, who was attending a game in Red Deer, planted the idea of Cameron returning to the team the next season. It was “game on” from that moment forward for Cameron.
“I think the best thing for me was being patient and not rushing things. That ultimately gave me a lot more confidence and lowered my expectations. I was alright with where I was at,” Cameron said.
Cameron spent last summer getting himself prepared to make a return to Humboldt to earn his spot on the team.
A year and a half after that unfathomable tragedy, a broken back, concussion and eye injury, he made his triumphant return — named captain of the Humboldt Broncos for his final season.
“I was where I wanted to be. It all came together. That’s when it hit me that I had accomplished something here,” Cameron said. “It was a really special moment.”
In 46 games, the six-foot winger contributed five goals and eight assists. There were some injuries throughout the season, something Cameron admits he was prepared for considering what he’d been through.
“That’s hockey. I was just happy to come back,” he said.
Cameron talks a lot of about how a hockey team is a family, something he knew prior to the crash but perhaps took somewhat for granted.
“That was the hardest part for me, not being around a team 24/7. That’s what all the guys miss when the seasons are over. I wanted to establish a tight team right away. That was something we did,” he said.
If there was one defining moment Cameron reflects on during his last season with the Broncos, it was a team meeting after a game in Nipawin the team had lost badly. Traveling back home on that same highway as the crash he thought a lot about what he wanted to say to his teammates.
“I opened up a little bit with the boys then and I think they respected it a lot,” he said. “I just told them a lot about what it means to be a teammate and what a family is like. What it’s like to be part of a winning team and a positive group. And not to take things for granted and enjoy it and enjoy each other because it doesn’t last forever.”
As the season wound down, Cameron started thinking about what his future in the sport and life might look like. He was being recruited by a number of Canadian and American universities but just like his return to hockey, he wasn’t putting any pressure on himself to rush into a decision.
He also wanted to make sure the educational path he was now seeking would be a fit.
“I feel like I’ve learned so many things over the last two years, if I can get that into words and go through my own thoughts and get a psychology degree, maybe I can make it easier on some other people who are also going through their own things,” Cameron said.
He wants to be a sports psychologist, so moved and inspired by what his therapist was able to help him through, now wanting to pay it forward.
“It sounds cliché and stupid but it’s a big part of it. Mental health is a big part of it. Talking to a therapist gets overlooked,” he said.
In the midst of his contemplation, a coach from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin started turning up the heat on recruiting Cameron.
Seamus Gregory, from Harbour Grace, Nfld., was hired as head coach of the program in 2014. He had seen Cameron play prior to the accident and put him on his team’s radar as a player he’d like to have in the future.
I told my wife I’ll be back in a week. Hopped in the truck. Drove to Weyburn. I texted Graysen and told him I was still interested.– Seamus Gregory, head coach at Northland College, on his recruiting trip.
“He’s hard on the puck. Good two-way player,” Gregory told CBC Sports. “His compete level is off the charts.”
Northland College is a small school with only about 600 students. LumberJacks hockey is an NCAA Division III program. Gregory knew that the tight-knit, family atmosphere could be appealing to Cameron. He planted the seed of having Cameron join their team in January during a recruiting trip.
“As the season progressed, I gave him my card. I kept talking to him and texting him,” Gregory said. “He’s a tremendous leader.”
The two kept in contact but Gregory didn’t want to push Cameron too hard with the playoffs starting up for the Broncos. His team had been eliminated after a challenging season.
Then, one morning in February, Gregory woke up and felt compelled to jump in his truck and drive 17 hours from Ashland to Humboldt to meet with Cameron.
“I told my wife I’ll be back in a week. Hopped in the truck. Drove to Weyburn. Watched a couple games and then got a hotel in Humboldt,” Gregory said. “I texted Graysen and told him I was still interested. Told him lunch would be great.”
On a cold, prairie winter afternoon in February, Gregory, Cameron and Broncos head coach Scott Barney met at a Boston Pizza in Humboldt.
“We just had an immediate connection,” Gregory said.
A feeling shared by Cameron.
“Seamus tried doing everything he could to make me feel comfortable,” he said. “I think we think the same way about a lot of things. Especially with how tight and family-like his team was last season.”
Last Saturday, on April 25, Cameron phoned Gregory. He told his future coach he was committing to the program.
“It was always Northland from the start in my head. It’s the best fit for me by far,” Cameron said. “It’ll be a different experience. I haven’t been a student for three years. It’ll be a shock but I’m ready for it. I’m just happy to get a nice change.”
Gregory, who had doubts about whether Cameron would join his team, was elated to receive that phone call.
“It was a beautiful day. I was outside with my three daughters. He talked to me about his life and where he wanted to go and what he wants to study and that he wanted to come play for me,” Gregory said.
“I got goosebumps.”
More than anything, Gregory says Cameron will make an immediate impact in the locker room leading his young team.
“He’s going to demand respect when he walks through the locker room. We need him. We need him in our locker room,” Gregory said.
“Graysen brings hope and inspiration to our little community.”
It signals a new beginning for Cameron, a fresh start he says he so badly needs. The past two years have taken its toll on the young man from Alberta, the weight of it all sometimes too much.
“Not having as much of that pressure. I knew it was part of it, but it’ll be nice to have a change,” he said. “My last year was a little stressful at times.”
He doesn’t want that to be misinterpreted, that he’s somehow turning his back on the Broncos and everything he went through in the Saskatchewan community. That team, that experience, his “brothers” will always be with him.
“I’m always playing for those guys. I went back for me but I’m playing for them,” he said.
Cameron’s No. 9 is now retired by the Humboldt Broncos, alongside his former teammates up in the rafters of the Elgar Peterson Arena.
“It’s a huge honour. I never thought I’d have my jersey retired anywhere. It’s nice to know that those banners are there forever next to my brothers,” Cameron said.