Chandler Stephenson was mid-celebration on the ice after winning the Stanley Cup when someone yelled his name.
Stephenson looked up into the stands and saw Brayden Camrud, a friend from back home who played for the Humboldt Broncos junior team. Camrud and Kaleb Dahlgren, another friend of Stephenson’s, survived the April bus crash on the prairie of Saskatchewan that killed 16 people, including 11 of their teammates.
Stephenson knew at the beginning of the playoffs he wanted to take the Cup to Humboldt if he and the Washington Capitals won it. When the Capitals led the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1 in the final, the 24-year-old said it was his intent to share his day with the Cup with the people of Humboldt. He is from nearby Saskatoon.
He will make good on that commitment Friday, hoping his small gesture will help somehow.
"The community deserves to have a good day," Stephenson said. "We’re not trying to be saviors by any means because nothing can replace a life. We’re just trying to make it as positive a day as we can and hopefully put some smiles and some laughs on some people’s faces."
Stephenson will be joined by more than a dozen current and former players for Humboldt Hockey Day, organized by the NHL and NHLPA to celebrate the strength and resilience of the town of 6,000. Broncos spokeswoman Tammy Robert called it a baby step in a complicated healing process for victims, their loved ones and everyone affected.
"This day is designed to bring some of the joy back to the game of hockey for the community of Humboldt," Robert said. "It’s about clearing the way for the new 2018-19 season for the Humboldt Broncos team and just giving them the opportunity to have fun."
Those opportunities have been in short supply since the April 6 crash, when the team bus on its way to a playoff game was hit by a truck. The hockey world that so often functions like a small town grieved together as NHL teams paid tribute with stickers and moments of silence and an online fundraising effort raised more than $15 million for the victims.
In an attempt to figure out what might best help those in Humboldt, former NHL defenseman Andrew Ference reached out to Colorado Avalanche general manager and Hockey Hall of Famer Joe Sakic, who survived the 1986 Swift Current Broncos crash that killed four people.
"His big message was that you can only do so much, first of all, but also that every person is going to arrive at their grief, or they’re going to deal with it, in different ways and it’s going to be at different times," said Ference, who is now the NHL’s director of social impact, growth and fan development. "There’s not one blanket kind of reaction to a whole group."
Stephenson knows that. He was thrilled to see Camrud in Las Vegas when the Capitals won the Cup and is glad to be skating with Dahlgren again this summer. He understands many others weren’t so lucky, which is why he thought of Humboldt before planning any other activity he’d do in his short period with the Cup.
"Your time with the Cup isn’t exactly forever, so I think it’s just really special that he’s willing to do that," said Humboldt Broncos alum and retired defenseman Sheldon Brookbank, who won it with Chicago in 2013. "I think the Cup being there is going to just bring a little bit of joy back to the community. There’s something about that Stanley Cup, every time you see it or are in the same room as it, it just brings that certain awe factor."
Members of the Broncos organization will be around Stephenson and the Cup for a private function before he takes the famous trophy to a public event in the afternoon that will feature street hockey with the likes of Ference, Adam Graves, Calgary’s Travis Hamonic and St. Louis’ Brayden Schenn. Ference said players who have never won the Cup often steer clear of someone’s day with it, but this is an exception.
"When this opportunity presented itself to do something around Chandler’s day and to go in and be with the community and do something fun like street hockey and just hanging out around the local rink, guys stepped up and they wanted to be a part of it," Ference said. "There definitely wasn’t any arm-twisting involved."
Robert said the NHL and NHLPA have been "a rock behind the scenes" for the Broncos, calling this event an extension of that support. Brookbank, who spent time this summer visiting injured players at Saskatoon City Hospital, understands the role hockey plays in the community. He figures the Cup being there will make a difference.
"It’s small-town Saskatchewan," Brookbank said. "It’s a really special thing, and the Stanley Cup doesn’t get out there that often. For Chandler to do that, I just think that’s amazing on him."