'We became a stronger family': Supporters rally as Humboldt Broncos take ice for home opener

The new Humboldt Broncos will be surrounded by support when they take home ice on Wednesday for their first regular season game since the bus crash in the spring.

The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League team were on their way to Nipawin, Sask., for a playoff game on April 6 when their bus was struck by a semi.

The crash killed 16 people including players, team staff and members of the media.

The team spent the summer rebuilding and recruiting new players. They will face off against the Nipawin Hawks at the Elgar Petersen Arena at 6:30 p.m. CST.

Spike in mental health needs

Executive director with Partners Family Services Hayley Kennedy said a mental health support team will be at the rink.

For the players, the home opener is surrounded by pressure, expectations and nervousness, Kennedy said.

During this fiscal year, which started in July, the organization has seen a 20 per cent increase in people seeking mental health support in Humboldt.

Kennedy said in the last five months, people in the community have each been grieving the crash very differently.

Hayley Kennedy, executive director with Partners Family Services in Humboldt, said the organization has seen a 20 per cent increase in people seeking mental health support since the bus crash. (CBC News)

"That can be really challenging, especially if your own timeline, or how things look for you, isn't what you'd expect from your neighbour," she said. "We are fortunate as a community that there has been a ton of support for us locally, provincially and from across Canada.

"That certainly has made a difference to know that we have such strong support."  

Kennedy said she expects the game to be a step in the right direction for the community as a whole.

"Some of those pieces of finding our normal I think are really important," she said. "The ability to come back to this arena on a Friday or Saturday night and sit in their regular seats again, that definitely has a healing piece to it.

"It will be emotional and some of it will be difficult but…it will be healing for the heart."

Someone to confide in

Mark Popovic is the skills and development coach for the Broncos. Popovic said his role, which is typically reserved for NHL teams, will not act as an authority figure for the players, but more of a confidant.

"Ìt can be a little bit of a lonely world in junior hockey. Most of these players are living away from home, they're living with host families," Popovic said. "It's nice to have someone you can trust and open up to and who's been there before.

"One of the reasons I started doing this stuff was because when I was in junior hockey it was something I really needed as a player and a person, somebody to confide in, to talk hockey, to talk life, outside of your parents and the coaches."

Mark Popovic, skills and development coach for the Broncos, says he wants to be there for players both on and off the ice. (CBC News)

Popovic, who played professional hockey, will also be on the ice to help along with the other coaches.

"We're all working together to support these players in any way they need it," he said.

Healing together

Cory Popoff, Humboldt Collegiate Institute principal, said the new school year has offered a new beginning for students.

"I can tell everyday we're moving closer to being OK. We're starting to laugh a little more. We're starting to have more fun," he said. "It's tremendous to see. We've definitely turned a corner in that regard."

Last year, students were offered support from personal counselors and mental health counselors from the community, school division, health region and surrounding areas.

There is also an in-house counsellor at the high school.

Similar supports were extended to school staff.

Cory Popoff, Humboldt Collegiate Institute principal, said the community is taking the next step toward healing. (CBC News)

"Acknowledging the tragedy I think was one of the toughest things we've had to do as a staff and as students," he said. "One of two things can happen as a result of a tragedy like this, you either break up or you become a stronger family.

"We became a stronger family."

Popoff said the teachers have been diligent when it comes to keeping tabs on students.

"We're able to find out almost immediately if a student is struggling and is outside their normal behaviour," he said.

Popoff is a Broncos season ticket holder and said he will be attending the home opener. He said he expects to see many of his students at the sold out game. 

"Our community is very good at supporting our Broncos through thick and thin, through good times and bad," he said.

"I can't wait to watch some Bronco hockey."

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