By Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
HUMBOLDT — In every corner of Elgar Petersen arena, there are tributes to the victims of the 2018 Humboldt Broncos bus crash.
Two memorial benches greet visitors on their way into the venue: one made of hockey sticks; a second, in Broncos green-and-yellow, reads “always in our hearts,” though the message is almost hidden by two enormous teddy bears.
Banners with the names of those killed in the crash are suspended over the ice. Behind them, a quilt sent from Alberta hangs on the wall.
During Sunday’s game against the Flin Flon Bombers, amongst the sea of green and yellow, splashes of red and black stood out in the crowd — spectators wearing “James Smith Cree Nation Strong” T-shirts, who wanted to show their ongoing support following the mass stabbings in September.
“Four and a half years ago, the whole country — the whole world — showed a tremendous amount of support for the Humboldt Broncos, and for my family,” said Carol Brons, whose daughter Dayna was athletic therapist for the Broncos and among those who died in the bus crash.
“So it’s important to me to be able to show that same support in return, and give a little bit of hope to the families of James Smith as they travel through this terrible tragedy and try to heal.”
At the game, Brons wore her James Smith Strong T-shirt, which she hopes will be “a visible show of support from one community to another that’s been hurting.”
Over the shirt, she wore an angel wing pendant with her daughter’s name.
“Across Canada, there have been lots of times that the Broncos were honoured at different arenas and venues,” Brons said. “I wasn’t able to be present at most of them, but if I heard about it, it did mean something to me.
“And it’s never too late to offer your sympathies or show support. I still have people coming up to me and offering their words.
“It’s just a reminder that there are people out there that support you, and are helping you walk the journey of grief.”
In the immediate aftermath of the stabbing attacks on James Smith Cree Nation, people in Humboldt organized food drives for the survivors and vigils for the dead. Some visited the First Nation, finding connections through shared tragedy and the early days of healing.
Penny Lee, marketing and development manager for the City of Humboldt, says those relationships will last.
“There’s definitely an invisible thread between the two communities,” she said. “We’ll never forget one another. The friendships we’re building are even stronger.
“Their tragedy brought back a lot for us, here, so we wanted to reach out to them in any way that we could, and continue to do that, in the same way people have supported us.”
Celeste Leray-Leicht remembers the outpouring of support she received after losing her son, Jacob, in the bus crash — included a beaded ribbon from Lissa Bear, an artist from James Smith Cree Nation.
And Leray-Leicht remembers many trips from Humboldt to JSCN as a child, when her brothers played hockey at that rink, about an hour away from home.
“They’re not that far. They’re just down the road from us,” she said.
So, over the past few months, Leray-Leicht has felt “compelled” to support the community however she can.
She also wants people to know how important it is to keep showing up for grieving communities well into the future, as immediate needs give way to long-term community healing.
“I think this is a huge responsibility of adults in our community, to show what we do,” she said.
“We show up for people, right? Just like people showed up for us. We were shown a lot of kindness, and we were taught a lot of compassion.
“So we’re grateful — we’re sad, under what the circumstances are — but we’re grateful that we are able to do these things just the same.”
On Saturday, Leray-Leicht got out her James Smith Strong T-shirt and started preparing to attend the next day’s game. If there was a chance to show her support and solidarity with her neighbours down the road, she wanted to take it.
“I do still love hockey,” she said. “It’s always a struggle, going to Broncos games, to be honest. I’ve been to one period this fall — one period of a game, that’s it. It’s tough, walking into our home arena.”
But, she said, she would be there on Sunday.
(Carol Brons, wearing a James Smith Strong t-shirt, stands in front of a Humboldt Broncos game in the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt, Sask on Nov. 20, 2022. Liam O’Connor/Saskatoon StarPhoenix.)