Fill the arenas

I try not to repeat myself in these columns, but this week I think I should revisit a topic that I brought up last spring, shortly after the Humboldt Broncos tragedy.

The northern Saskatchewan town recently faced the difficult task of reliving the early-April bus crash that took 16 lives and injured another 13 passengers, with the bulk of the Broncos’ roster, the team’s head coach and athletic therapist, and a veteran play-by-play announcer lost in a highway accident that touched Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast.

Last week, at the Broncos’ home opener for the 2018-19 season, many tears were shed and a torrent of emotions flooded the ice as the gutsy Humboldt squad – featuring only two players from the previous year’s team – took to the ice against the Nipawin Hawks.

The visitors, who were in a play-off series with Humboldt at the time of the crash and wound up winning the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League title, eked out a 2-1 win after the Broncos opened the scoring. But it’s arguable that the real winners were the people of Humboldt and all those impacted by April’s accident, including the families of deceased Broncos players who came from communities as diverse as Edmonton and Winnipeg to wear the Broncos’ colours.

These people have already begun the long, difficult healing process and can now take a step forward from a night that, for better or for worse, attracted attention from across the country and even merited a rare live broadcast of a Junior ‘A’-level hockey game on TSN.

In the meantime, back here in the Strait area, it’s likely that this month’s home opener in Humboldt reminded us how we honoured the team in our own way back in April.

You may have left one or more hockey sticks outside your door. You may have hung signs of support in your homes, offices or businesses. You may have worn your own hockey sweater or other sports items on the official “Jerseys For Humboldt” day, April 12. You may have even contributed to the GoFundMe campaign that raised over $11 million for the Broncos organization and the crash victims’ families.

I was personally touched and moved to see all of that, and to see it happening in communities of every size, all across Canada. But, as a new hockey season dawns in our neck of the woods, there’s one last thing I’d like you to at least consider doing:

Fill the arenas.

As I said back in April, we have a lot of young athletes who criss-cross the Strait area, the province, the East Coast, the country, and even the continent to simply participate in their chosen sport. They wear our colours and our communities proudly wherever they go, and they think nothing about getting into a car, van, bus or plane to do something we too often dismiss as merely playing a game.

They deserve our support. So do the coaches, trainers, general managers and team executives that put their lives on hold to put a team out on the ice, on the field, on the court, in the pool, or on the judo or cheer mat.

So let’s fill the arenas.

Let’s honour the people of Humboldt, the three provinces’ worth of hometowns that provided players for the Broncos, and every sports community in Canada by making sure our own young athletes know we’re behind them.

If you’ve never gone to a local game, or you’re not even interested in sports, give it a shot. You might be surprised at the level of entertainment, community spirit and camaraderie that emerges when we all get together to rally behind our own.

If you’re an armchair athlete that measures the performance of our kids against real or imagined past glories, give your attitude a tune-up. Don’t make unfair comparisons to league MVPs or championship teams from decades ago. Cheer equally loudly for our kids whether they’re up 3-0 or down 3-0.

Make signs. Bring horns and other noisemakers. Organize group chants and cheers. Learn the individual players’ names. If you recognize any of them in your local grocery stores or restaurants – where they’re likely working to earn the paycheques that minor-league sports never bring – congratulate them and their team for their effort.

Bring a friend. Make a fun night out of it. Say hello to a stranger, even if they’ve come from out of town to cheer on their team and/or boo yours. You might be surprised at what kind of relationships emerge from friendly rivalries.

Bottom line: Don’t wait for a tragedy to congratulate these amazing young people for taking on such a large role in our community identity.

Do it now.

Fill the arenas.