LAS VEGAS — A teenager sat in a wheelchair, his motionless legs a stark reminder of a tragedy that left the hockey world in tears. Sitting around a table with survivors of a bus accident in which 16 Humboldt Broncos died, the 18-year-old goalie wore No. 31, with the name “WASSERMAN” stitched across the back of a gold-and-green sweater.
Without a word, two strong hands came out of nowhere and were gently placed on Jacob Wasserman’s shoulders. When the young athlete turned to see who had stopped by for a visit, his face lit up with a smile of recognition for Avalanche coach Jared Bednar.
“I grew up in Humboldt,” Bednar said Tuesday. “I played hockey for the Broncos. I traveled the same roads. I remember how much those games meant to me. When something like this happens, when young men go through a tragedy that should never happen to anybody, you reach out and help, let them know you care, anyway you can.”
The NHL’s biggest names are all here in Vegas, baby. Nathan MacKinnon, Drew Doughty and Pekka Rinne have gathered for the league’s awards gala Wednesday. The stars of the show, however, are certain to be nine young players from the Humboldt Broncos, whose resiliency after a horrific accident during a road trip in April bonded the hockey community, because hugs are what members of a tight-knit family do to combat the pain.
“I know you’ve been through a lot. But you’ve been a great inspiration to us,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told Wasserman and his teammates, at a private gathering where, one by one, candidates for the Vezina and Hart trophies stopped to say hello.
While a media horde waited in a huge nearby ballroom to interview the NHL award nominees, Bednar lingered in the tiny room with the Broncos, because first and foremost, the Avalanche’s coach of the year candidate is a son of Humboldt.
Bednar grew up on the Saskatchewan prairie, the son of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer and a kid with big hockey dreams. One of his best friends was Kirby Wasserman, owner of a heavy slap shot and the son of a farmer.
“We got in a lot of teenage trouble together,” confided Wasserman, who met Bednar in the early 1980s, when they were both 10 years old.
“Well,” interrupted Bednar, “one half of us was the good kid …”
Before the Avs coach could incriminate anyone, Wasserman added, “We’ll let you figure out which one.”
From the roar of a snowmobile in winter to the whack of hockey sticks on pavement during summer, Bednar and Wasserman became friends for life.
Within days after the Avs lost 5-0 to Nashville and were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs, Bednar hopped on a plane to Canada. Among his first stops was Saskatoon City Hospital, where his buddy’s son resided for 73 long days after the Humboldt team bus was shredded in a collision with a tractor-trailer, leaving Jacob Wasserman paralyzed from the waist down.
“Humboldt has always adopted the Broncos as their own,” Kirby Wasserman said. “And Humboldt wants to take care of them, especially now, in response to this tragedy.”
Jobs and mortgages, all the nuisances of adulthood, tend to push aside friendships of our youth. One hug, however, can melt away the years. “Mr. Bednar was in my dad’s whole group of old friends,” Jacob said. “I actually never met him until he came to visit me in the hospital. I immediately knew who he was, and I remembered a couple good stories my dad told me about when they were kids. But I found out he was a good guy, a really good guy.”
The accident robbed a young goalie the use of his legs but failed to steal his dreams. Wasserman vows to be back on the ice ASAP, playing sledge hockey. Who knows? Check back in a few years, and don’t be surprised if you see “WASSERMAN” stitched on the back of a sweater, representing Canada at the Winter Paralympics.
But for now? “After being in the hospital for so long,” he admitted, “adjustment back into normal life is hard.”
While one of their favorite sons was gone in a Saskatoon hospital, Humboldt waited, quietly preparing for the adolescent goalie’s return. Love need not be loud to be strong. “We’ve seen businesses in town put in wheelchair-accessible ramps that weren’t there three months ago,” Kirby Wasserman said.
Welcome home, Jacob. Welcome home.
On a sizzling Las Vegas evening, Bednar will walk the red carpet into the Hard Rock Hotel, where Johnny Cash’s black shirt and Tom Petty’s Rickenbacker guitar adorn the casino walls, then he will grab a seat alongside NHL luminaries, waiting to hear if he’s named coach of the year.
But his heart will be 1,540 miles away, back in Humboldt (population 5,869), where the coolest dream a young Bednar ever imagined was skating for his local heroes, the Broncos.
Humboldt. It’s home. It’s hockey. It’s love, unbroken and certain that even after the cruelest night of winter, the sun will return in spring.