TAMPA — Rebecca Taylor, a Lightning fan from Tampa, drove her rental car 16 hours straight to reach Newark, N.J., and Game 3 of the Lightning's first-round playoff series.
"I didn't stop much," said Taylor, who works in VIP guest services for Cirque du Soleil. "But no matter where I was, even in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, people would say something to me."
Taylor was born in the province of Alberta in Canada, where hockey runs through the nation like a main circuit. So she understood. But it kept up at the New Jersey Devils arena, where she wore a camouflage, military-style Lightning jersey.
"It was funny because I was with friends in Lightning jerseys," Taylor said. "They had things thrown at them and were cursed constantly. But I was given complete respect. People took pictures with me and thanked me. I felt their love."
It had everything to do with the word on the back of her jersey, a jersey that goes where the Lightning goes in these playoffs.
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On the plains of Saskatchewan, in the small farming community of Humboldt and everywhere else, there is still grief, pain. Everything changed April 6, when a coach bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League to a playoff game collided with a semitrailer truck on a rural highway. Sixteen members of the Humboldt travel party died, and 13 were injured, several critically.
"It took a big chunk out of us," said Lightning assistant coach Brad Lauer, who grew up in Humboldt and who played a season for the Broncos. "But we're strong."
"It's a big world out there, but the hockey world is smaller, close knit," said Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn, who grew up in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, southwest of Humboldt. "And that world has come together with this."
"There are still people trying to come to grips with this new reality, that family members are not with us," Broncos president Kevin Garinger said.
Among those who died was 21-year-old forward Conner Lukan, from Slave Lake, Alberta, who was billeted with the Garinger family.
"This new normal is not something everyone is ready to accept," Garinger said. "It's still surreal."
But so, too, has been the outpouring of support, which has extended beyond Saskatchewan, beyond Canada. A GoFundMe page in the name of Humboldt generated $15.3 million (The Lightning donated $35,000, proceeds from a playoff game 50/50 raffle, to Humboldt). NHL teams are wearing Humboldt stickers on their helmets in the playoffs. Coaches are wearing green ribbons for Humboldt, whose colors are green and white. Like so many other people, Lauer and Coburn have placed hockey sticks outside their front doors to remember the victims and show support for Humboldt. It's what they can do.
"The response has been phenomenal," said Tom Straschnitzki, whose son Ryan, a Humboldt defenseman from outside Calgary, survived the crash but was left paralyzed from the chest down. "We're a simple people. You really don't realize how small a world hockey is until this."
Tampa is 2,456 miles from Humboldt.
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The story of the Humboldt jersey began with Dan Gitzler, who lives in Parrish and works in Sarasota as a quality control manager. Gitzler is a longtime Lightning fan. He also served six years in the Marines. He grew up in Tampa but was born in Canada. Seeing the tragedy, the ex-Marine fell into a sense of mission.
"I wanted to pay tribute to the victims and make sure we remember them," Gitzler said.
In December, his wife, Kim, gave him a Lightning camouflage jersey that had been produced for Military Appreciation Night at Amalie Arena. Gitzler, inspired, went to work after the bus crash. He had "Humboldt" put on the back of it and added the number 16, for those who died.
He created a Twitter account, @HumboldtJersey. He wore the jersey to Game 1 of the playoff series against New Jersey, then spread the word on Facebook and the Lightning fan page Thunder Bolts. People volunteered to wear the jersey at other games and have shared their experiences on social media.
Daniel Lynn of Tampa wore the jersey to Game 2 against New Jersey. "It was an honor," he said. Then Rebecca Taylor wore it in New Jersey. "With pride," she said. "It was very emotional."
“The response has been amazing” Gitzler said. “I’ve spoken to families of victims and survivors. They’re grateful we’re doing this.”
The jersey missed Game 5 of the Lightning-Devils series in Tampa, the clincher, because it was on the road again. Gitzler had sent it to the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, which dispatched it to the Canalta Cup, the league's championship series.
Danny Ewen, an in-game host for the league's Estevan Bruins, wore the jersey for Game 6 of the series between Estevan and the Nipawin Hawks. Humboldt had been traveling to Nipawin for a semifinal game at the time of the crash. Before Game 6, players from both teams signed the jersey, as Lightning players had before them.
"It meant a lot to a lot of people," Ewen said.
Nipawin won the league title in seven games. The Hawks wore green helmets in the final to honor Humboldt Broncos green.
The jersey was at Amalie for the first two games of the Boston series. Bruins players signed the jersey. Kim Gitzler wore the jersey for Game 1. Brian and Michelle Reid, a billet family from Ontario, wore it for Game 2.
Dan Gitzler wore the jersey to a Game 3 watch party in Tampa. Then he handed it off to Chrissy Paten of Sarasota, who picked up the jersey from the Gitzlers and took it to Boston for Game 4 on Friday. "People were so nice. They all wanted to pay their respects," said Paten, who works for an accounting firm.
The jersey rolls on.
"We want it to go all the way to the Stanley Cup final with the Lightning," Dan Gitzler said. "There's so much bad stuff that happens in the world. And you hear about it all the time. The other stuff gets drowned out. Sometimes it just helps to spread a little love and empathy."
"I think it's really cool that it's making the rounds," Braydon Coburn said. "Everybody has their own way of showing support. That our fans came up with something like this, it just makes you smile. This hockey thing is so intertwined, whether it's from Humboldt all the way down to Tampa. It's really a big family."
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Kevin Garinger wants us to know that the healing has begun in Humboldt. For the first few weeks after the accident, he couldn't bring himself to go in what had been Conner's room. But eventually he found his way there, and he found some peace.
"They were all amazing kids," Garinger said. "Conner was the most amazing and caring young man. In one playoff game, Conner blocked five shots on one shift. He was about helping the team."
Garinger said the traveling Humboldt jersey, just the thought of it being out there, helps.
"Everyone around the world, across the provinces and in the United States, kind of has wrapped their arms around us at the darkest time in our history. None of us will ever forget this," he said.
Ryan Straschnitzki is now able to sit in a wheelchair. He will soon begin a journey with physical therapy. He is determined, and his fallen coaches and teammates are one reason why.
"I'm doing this all for them," Ryan said in a recent TV interview. "That's how I remember them, so they're always there."
"I don't think they'll ever be forgotten," Tom Straschnitzki said. "Just a huge thank you to everybody out there. And you tell the Humboldt jersey to keep it going."
The Humboldt jersey guy plans to do just that. Today the jersey will be worn at Game 5 against the Bruins by Victor Rivera of Davenport. Dan Gitzler is going to keep it up, just like Braydon Coburn and Brad Lauer are going to keep those hockey sticks on their front steps.
"Hockey is a pretty big part of this town," Lauer said.
This is a family matter. Wherever the Lightning goes in these playoffs, Humboldt will go, even if it means going back to that Boston arena.
Yes, Tampa Bay and Humboldt are 2,456 miles apart.
Forget that. They're neighbors.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Martin Fennelly at email@example.com. Follow @mjfennelly.