Kickoff loomed in Regina on Saturday night and the the sold out crowd at Mosaic Stadium stood together, completely silent.
On the big screen, Humboldt Broncos president Kevin Garinger spoke of the outpouring of support that his team and the community have received locally, provincially, nationally and from around the world. On Friday, it’ll be three months since the Broncos’ bus collided with a semi-truck loaded with peat moss, turning a cold, late-winter prairie intersection into ground zero of a tragedy. Sixteen of the 29 people on the bus died, with lives across the country impacted in the aftermath.
All 29 families were represented at Saturday’s game, either by survivors of the crash or their family members. The Riders’ invite extended to the first responders of the accident, bringing the total of guests up around the 200-person mark.
“That’s what tonight is about. It’s about that healing journey,” Garinger said. “It’s about understanding how we’re going to live with our new normal.”
The screen listed the names of the 16 people lost.
“We’ll carry along our loved ones with us. But we will carry on,” Garinger said.
A handful of Broncos players were introduced on the field for the pre-game coin flip — they used a Broncos puck this time — and all 33,308 fans in the building gave them a long, warm standing ovation.
Brandon Bieber was there, one of the 200 guests of the Riders. He looked at the crowd, almost all of them in Riders’ green or the green and yellow of the Broncos and thought of his brother. Tyler Bieber was the radio voice of the Broncos, a local coach, a football scout and avid volunteer that also did some work for CFL.ca a few years back. He was 29.
“It was pretty cool to take in,” he said. “It was pretty emotional, too, but it was nice.”
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He looked up as the game was about to start and saw a rainbow over the stadium. He thought back to three days after the accident, when a Facebook user posted a picture of a cloud over Saskatoon that looked like a hockey stick. Through the pain and the grief over the last three months, there have been moments like this for Bieber and his family, providing tiny but necessary nudges in the right direction.
“Those little signs that tell you that someone’s there and they’re watching over you,” he said.
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It was graduation day at Humboldt Collegiate Institute on June 28 when David Millette answered his phone. A vice principal at the high school in the small city of just about 6,000 people, he was about to oversee 81 of his students walk out of the school and into the next stage of their lives.
There’s a sense of relief in his voice, but it’s different than what you’d normally hear from an educator at the end of another 10-month work marathon.
“People are definitely relieved to have this period of the year over,” he said.
“I know we have a lot of support in the community for those that need it outside of the school, but the staff, the students, parents, I think it’s a real big opportunity for us to sit back and de-stress. It’s been a tiring few months, for sure.”
The way that Garinger, Bieber and Millette all kind of sigh sometimes when they’re talking about it, you can sense the exhaustion, the extent of what three months of shock, of mourning, of grief does to a person.
“The magnitude of it didn’t really even sink in until we went up there and practised. You had five or six people come up and one of their family members was one of the people that were killed. It kind of unfolds right there in front of you.”
Riders head coach and GM Chris Jones
That’s where the gestures made from the outside have made a difference for a community that will be processing this loss for a long time.
“I know that speaking on behalf of the staff and the people in the community, the support we’ve received from across the country and the globe has been meaningful,” Millette said.
“Even small visits from people, especially right after the event, were powerful things to see. You’d have kids struggling and Connor McDavid shows up, or the Riders show up and you see people have some genuine smiles and it takes their mind off of things a little bit.”
“The magnitude of it didn’t really even sink in until we went up there and practised,” Riders head coach, GM and vice president of football ops Chris Jones said of the team’s trip to Humboldt.
“You had five or six people come up and one of their family members was one of the people that were killed. It kind of unfolds right there in front of you.”
There have been visits from the hockey community at large and as Millette mentioned, the Riders held a practice in Humboldt and spent time with the community during training camp. There was a country music benefit concert and the Broncos went to Las Vegas last month for the NHL awards, where their coach, Darcy Haugan, was posthumously named the first recipient of the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.
Then, of course, came the Humboldt Strong game on Saturday in Regina. You hope that in taking as many of the people as possible that shared the worst day of their lives and reuniting them in positive atmospheres, that it can help in the healing process.
“There is so much power in coming together and being physically present with each other,” said Millette, who made the 2.5-hour drive from Humboldt to be at the game with his family on Saturday.
“Whether it be at the game or seeing someone downtown or at a church, at graduation, there’s a lot of strength that comes from that togetherness, absolutely. We’re grateful for the CFL and the Riders to open their doors to helping us heal and doing what they can to support our community.”
Mosaic Stadium is the largest meeting place in the province. Feeling love and support from that many people, all in the same place can carry a lot of weight.
“I think it helps a lot,” Bieber said. “You talk about it and see how everybody’s doing and it’s more of a social event. It’s pretty fun getting to know everybody. I enjoy meeting new people and those kind of events are kind of special for everybody. You get everybody together, get out and take your mind off of things.”
* * * * *
Within two weeks of the accident, Bieber was at a tattoo parlour with a picture of his brother in hand. For the first time in his life, he was getting inked up.
In the days following Tyler’s death, Brandon saw that his brother had commitments remaining on his calendar. In two weeks’ time, there was a 20-km spin bike challenge. Tyler had signed up to help work a May 5 football camp in Humboldt for former BC Lions’ O-lineman and current Edmonton Eskimos’ offensive quality control coach, Kelly Bates. Brandon knew how much coaching and volunteering meant to Tyler, so he made sure there was a Bieber at the events. The tattoo on Brandon’s back would ensure that Tyler was there with him for everything he did.
“He did that (the Bates camp) for quite a few years and I took his place there this year. Pretty much everything he was committed to, I went and did before I came back (to work),” Bieber said.
A former CJFL player that suited up with Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ star Andrew Harris, Bieber was happy to get back into football in some way.
“It was awesome,” he said. “Just getting back into it, I thought it might spark another interest in myself to go back and maybe start coaching again or volunteering my time to help out with a sports team. I had a lot of fun. There was about 100 kids there and Kelly donated $1,000 in Tyler’s memory to the high school football team.”
Wherever Brandon goes, Tyler is now in some physical way, with him. He showed the tattoo to his family, with Tyler’s face etched onto his back and his name written in the style of the Broncos’ logo. His brother Brett followed suit and got the same tattoo on his arm. Their mom, Marilyn Hay, got a portrait of Tyler on her arm.
“We went to quite a few events, award ceremonies and stuff,” Brandon said. “I felt like I had him there with me and he could be there with us. That’s kind of the whole reason I got it.”
He enjoyed his time at the game, his first one at the new stadium (“Could have been a different outcome,” he grumbled and laughed about the Riders’ loss to Montreal). When he was on the sidelines before kickoff, he thought about how through Tyler’s work in football, he was in the Riders’ locker room when they won the Grey Cup in 2013. He remembered how his brother would sit with him in the stands at the old stadium and rattle off stats, call penalties before they were flagged and erupt in objection if he thought the call was wrong.
His phone buzzed during the game, with people tagging him in photos. It was friends and fans wearing Broncos jerseys and t-shirts with Tyler’s name on them. It’s a strange and hard feeling, being surrounded by thousands of people who are thinking about you and missing the one person you can’t get back.
Before the accident, Bieber had settled in Cold Lake, Alta. as a welder. He’d left Humboldt when he was 18 and only got back about twice a year. After everything that’s happened, he’s looking at moving back home to be closer to his family again.
“They’re hit and miss I guess, daily,” Bieber said of his family. “We went to the high school grad last week and me and my mom presented Tyler’s first memorial award for the HCI (Humboldt Collegiate Institute) and one of the kids in the graduating class was Brody Hinz, the stats guy, he passed away too.
“They had a cap and gown on an empty chair for him and (surviving Broncos player) Jacob Wasserman, he was graduating too, so he wheeled out in his wheelchair on the stage. It was a pretty emotional grad, for sure.”
Bieber looks around his hometown and sees a community that’s still recovering. He looks at himself and knows that while he’s still carrying that pain with him, life is moving forward. It’s always moving forward, even if it drags you along with it sometimes.
“I feel like I am moving forward,” he said. “I still think about it daily, but it’s not like you can’t do anything. I couldn’t eat in the first bit of it, so it’s gotten better that way.
“It’s never going to be fully gone but I think the thing that makes it easier is the lasting memories that you’re going to have with all these scholarships in his name.
“There are certain things when you hear about it or watch things of your brother, you kind of get a tear in your eye. You’re still happy knowing the things that he did and the people that he helped and coached and what everybody actually saw him as and thought of him.
“Hearing that makes you feel pretty good.”
* * * * *
With school out and summer settling in over Humboldt, the community will move into what Garinger called “the new normal.”
Millette, who has been at HCI for nine years now and grew up Nipawin, is feeling out that new normal day by day.
“I think all of us have (thoughts of those lost or in the hospital still dealing with injuries) daily, or hourly, certainly there’s a daily reminder of the events,” he said. “I know that people are still thinking of and praying for those struggling and thinking of the families that have lost members.
“Looking forward to (Broncos) training camp or just putting the ice into our arena could be a trigger. The beginning of the season, the beginning of the school year. Obviously there will be birthdays and things like that to work through. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day.
“All of those are triggers, so it is a long healing process and I think we realize that we’re not going to be the same. We won’t ever have a closure to the event. We’re going to move forward and support each other.”
There may not be closure to be had but the Bieber family feels like some answers would go a long way. Going on three months from the accident, the cause of the crash has yet to be determined.
“I think the thing that hurts the most is just not knowing, really, what happened yet,” Brandon said. “I think that’s what my Mom said too. She just wants some closure and she’s not going to get any until she knows what happened. That’s the biggest thing on my mom’s mind is what actually happened.”
“I don’t think there’s ever closure on these things, to be honest with you,” Garinger said in a game day availability outside of Mosaic Stadium.
“This is just another part of the journey to healing. Everyone’s on a different place in that path. At this point it’s a matter of continuing with whatever needs to happen that way and we’re blessed to have this opportunity here in Regina, together to really continue on that journey.”
The next two months will be about a community finding its way on that path. Millette wants to take the summer to recharge, but mostly to spend time with his family and his closest friends. Bieber will continue to come back to his hometown and spend time with his family. The Stanley Cup is coming to town this summer. There will be Broncos golf tournaments and not long after that, when the days start to get shorter and a little cooler, the Broncos will have their season-opener on Sept. 12. The game will air live on TSN and CTV Saskatchewan.
That still feels a long ways off, though.
“I gotta tell you, it doesn’t feel like three months. Not even close,” Millette said. “It feels maybe, not like yesterday but it definitely feels a lot closer to the event still.
“The end of the year just kind of hit us, like, ‘Wow, we’re here. It’s about time.’ But at the same time I feel like I’m in April a little bit sometimes. Time has really stood still in many regards.”