By Sean Rooney on September 14, 2018.
When the Humboldt Broncos travel to Nipawin tonight, it won’t be the same path their bus took five months ago.
They haven’t avoided the site of the crash that killed 16 and spurred countless tributes and memorials, including another Wednesday as the nation looked on for their home opener. Far from it.
But as Michael Clarke puts it, at some point you’ve got to focus on the game.
“Since Day 1 we’ve been planning the best possible route for that, to pay our respects but also to keep guys’ emotions in check for the game,” said the 20-year-old. “We already visited the site as a team, I know everybody’s seen it. It was a very tough day for us as a group, but with our group being so tight we were able to help each other through it.”
Clarke scored the Broncos’ first goal since the April 6 crash, converting a back-door pass from Owen Guenter on a 5-on-3 power play early in the second period against Nipawin. The highlight was broadcast live on TSN and shared around the world. The Medicine Hat player’s name trended on Twitter and he’s done about a dozen media interviews this week.
It’s been exhausting, but he sort of knew this was what he signed up for when he agreed to a trade from the Calgary Canucks in the off-season.
Sort of, because he also knew nothing could prepare him for the emotions of the first night with survivors, victims’ families and a community still mourning so much loss.
“This year is not like anything I’ve ever run through, and I’m sure a lot of people before me or after are never going to go through as well,” said Clarke, who was named one of three alternate captains —crash survivors Brayden Camrud and Derek Patter are the others. “It’s definitely tough, going to the rink you see the guys’ names and you play for them. As tough as it is, we have a job to do and that’s to represent those guys who are no longer with us, keep growing the foundation they built last year.”
There will be no C on anyone’s jersey, in honour of former captain Logan Schatz who was killed in the crash. Every one of the jersey numbers from last year’s roster is retired, so Clarke wears No. 61.
After a half-hour pre-game, plus a post-game ceremony including banners for the 16 deceased and 13 survivors — 10 of whom attended — Clarke said the night was unlike anything he’s ever experienced. There were only an announced 1,998 fans at the sold-out Elgar Petersen Arena, but you could’ve fooled him.
“Honestly you couldn’t compare it to anything, I’ve never seen a building that loud, the standing ovation gave me chills coming onto the ice,” he said. “I’ve never been a part of something that special and I don’t know if I ever will be again.”
Thanks to the wall-to-wall TV coverage, it was likely the most-watched season-opening game for a junior hockey team ever. The new-look Broncos lost 2-1 to the Hawks, with all the goals coming in the second period.
Clarke called his goal “pretty crazy, probably the biggest goal I’ve ever scored in my life.” He also had a late chance off the last faceoff in Nipawin’s zone, but his high shot was handled by goalie Declan Hobbs as time expired. Humboldt outshot Nipawin 40-26.
The focus now turns to getting some early revenge on the reigning SJHL champions. The Broncos visited the crash site earlier this summer so that tonight’s trip won’t be as daunting, even though they’ll take a different route.
“We’ll try to get down to business,” he said. “They stole one from us, now it’s our turn to give it back to them.”
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