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By Katherine Fitzpatrick
HUMBOLDT, Saskatchewan, April 8 (Reuters) - For the small farming community of Humboldt in the prairies of Canada’s Saskatchewan province, the game of ice hockey unified the town and gave it its identity, bringing home two national championships.
The crash that killed at least 15 people when a bus being used by the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team collided with a tractor trailer on Friday dealt a harsh blow to the fewer than 6,000 people who call Humboldt home.
“It’s just gut-wrenching. It tears your heart out to think that these are fine young guys, that their futures have been wiped out,” said one local, Gordon Lees, who has been a fan of the team since it was formed in 1970 when he was ten years old.
He spent three years billeting Broncos members, he said, and knows many of the affected players’ parents well.
Lees was one of many residents who have descended on Humboldt’s sports and education complex, the Elgar Petersen Arena, since the tragedy to comfort and console one another, and to share updates on the condition of survivors.
Many wore jerseys and sweatshirts with the green Broncos logo. The stairs to the arena, where the team plays its home games, were covered with a memorial of flowers and stuffed toys.
In communities across rural Saskatchewan, such hockey venues are important focal points for locals, whether it be parents chatting in the stands during their children’s early morning practices, fans gathering to cheer on their local champions, or adult part-timers squeezing in a friendly game after work.
Perhaps the most famous player to hail from Humboldt, Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Glenn Hall, said no words could convey how he felt after learning about the tragedy.
“I’m sure that Humboldt is devastated, and I don’t know if it will ever come back from a situation like this,” Hall told NHL.com on Saturday from his farm in Stony Plain, Alberta.
Gordon Lees’ 24-year-old daughter Shelby said that the Broncos were a vital symbol of their town: the team twice won Canada’s Junior A championship, the Royal Bank Cup, as well as the provincial league championship several times.
“They represent our community and they have represented it across this nation,” said Shelby Lees.
Her boyfriend, Rhett Blackmur, spent four seasons playing for the Broncos and was a teammate of the captain, 20-year-old Logan Schatz, who was among those killed. Blackmur now coaches the town’s Midget AA team.
Dean Brockman, who coached the Broncos for 17 years before leaving in 2014, drove the 112 km (70 miles) back from Saskatoon where he lives now. He said he recalled Schatz as “one of those kids that you just don’t forget.”
“He always came with a smile on. He wanted to be a hockey player. That’s all he kind of lived and breathed,” Brockman said. “For me, I think you’ve got to try and find some positives out of a terrible situation.”
Reporting by Katherine Fitzpatrick in Humboldt, Saskatchewan; Writing by Denny Thomas; Editing by Daniel Wallis