North York, Ont. – It was an emotional journey for the York Lions men’s hockey team this past weekend, both literally and figuratively, but one that the team won’t soon forget, as they honoured one of their own during the Mark Cross #HumboldtStrong Remembrance Tour in Saskatchewan.
The 2018-19 Lions squad has plenty of connections to the Humboldt Broncos and those affected by the tragedy that took place this past April. Among those who lost their lives in the accident was Humboldt assistant coach and former Lion, Mark Cross; someone whose impact is still felt in the locker room of the Lions’ hockey program after he spent five seasons with the team, including three as an alternate captain, to go along with an MVP nod in his final year with the team.
Two teammates of Cross when he was with the Lions remain with the red and white, while one of York’s newest additions – former Bronco Kaleb Dahlgren (Saskatoon, Sask.), who joined the Lions in large part because of Cross’ influence – was one of the 13 survivors from the tragic crash.
In addition to these individuals, a pair of current players – Mack Shields (Saskatoon, Sask.) and Dexter Bricker (Saskatoon, Sask.) – also ventured back to familiar territory as part of the tour. The two Saskatchewan natives expressed the importance of hockey in their communities growing up and the meaning this tour had for not only the team, but those who are still part of these hockey-hungry towns.
“The Saskatchewan hockey community is small and if you play hockey, you basically know everyone,” expressed Bricker. And even though the Lions were coming from a couple provinces over, the response was one that made them feel right at home in these tight-knit communities, like they’d known them for years. “There were so many fans; they were so welcoming.”
Shields added on to this sentiment, stating that “Saskatchewan just loves their hockey, so I think that’s the best way to celebrate the lives of the players”.
Of course those who came out to York’s three contests against Canada West competition were excited to see the on-ice product and even went so far as to cheer loud and proud for the visiting Lions against their hometown teams. But while the Lions may have gone winless in their three games, falling to the Regina Cougars (3-2) in their opener, followed by an 8-1 loss to the Calgary Dinos, and a 5-2 defeat at the hands of the Saskatchewan Huskies – a game that also wrapped up play at the iconic Rutherford Arena in Saskatoon – the games themselves were representative of a much bigger picture.
“Everyone was excited to have us there. They know how far we had to travel and I think that meant a lot,” said Shields. As the York goaltender continued, this gesture may have been even more touching to one family in particular.
“I think it meant a lot to the Cross family to see that this program from Toronto was so touched by what Mark did for us that we traveled all the way to these small towns of Saskatchewan.”
Getting to be with the Cross family was an experience that not only stood out for Mark’s loved ones, but also for the Lions team. The team had lunch with the family during their time in Saskatchewan, and according to Bricker, being able to “just be there with them, talk to them, and share stories was amazing”.
Another of the tour’s most memorable and emotional moments came when the group visited the crash site from the accident just a few months prior; a site that now pays homage to those who lost their lives with flowers, photos, and of course, hockey sticks.
As Shields alluded to, it is not often that a hockey team is silent while on the road, but this moment needed no words. Standing in silence, sharing heartfelt embraces, and shedding tears, the experience was one that will stick with these players for a long time.
“Just experiencing that as a team was very humbling and you really gained appreciation for the accident itself and appreciation for each other,” said Shields. Bricker mirrored these comments, sharing that his experience at the crash site was “probably the biggest and most impactful moment of my life”.
Additional off-ice activities during the tour included a minor hockey clinic run by the Lions and their coaches in Lumsden, Sask. – the place where Cross grew up playing hockey – along with school visits and community engagements.
“Being from Saskatchewan, it realty hit home, so it was no nice to go back and give back the community of Humboldt and bring hockey back to Humboldt. It was such an honour to be able to show the legacy of all of these people to the community and the families and what they really meant to us,” expressed Bricker.
Coming out of the tour, there is certainly a greater and largely reinforced sense of community, respect, and closeness among the team as a whole. Sharing in this emotional journey and getting to take in everything they did during the four days was not something the team took lightly.
But even after honouring Mark Cross and the Broncos in this special way, and even after returning home to continue preparing for the start of the OUA season with a number of new faces from years past, their former leader and MVP will not be forgotten, as the team culture is still very much one that was established, in large part by, #18.