DENVER — During the first intermission of the University of Denver’s matchup with Providence at Magness Arena on Friday, there was a game within a game. A group of sled hockey players hit the ice for a quick exhibition.
“Words can’t describe it,” former Humboldt Bronco Ryan Straschnitzki says of being back on the ice. “It’s like time doesn’t exist and you’re just out there having fun with the people you like being with.”
“It was the most amazing feeling ever,” adds his teammate Jacob Wassermann. “You’re out there doing what you love to do and nothing else matters after that.”
The game came seven months after the tragedy that shook the hockey world in April. The Humboldt Broncos, a junior hockey team from Canada, were on their way to a playoff game when their bus crashed. Sixteen people were killed and 13 people were injured.
“We were on our way to the game so we came up to the accident,” recalls Jacob’s father, Kirby. “The day itself was horrific. You’re not sure if he’s alive or dead. When we did find out he made it, you worried about who didn’t.”
“This story was so big and affected the world, and especially the world of hockey,” says Martin Richardson, executive director of Dawg Nation Hockey Foundation.
The hockey community rallied around the team in the days and months after the accident. Dawg Nation, a Denver-based non-profit, immediately began raising money for the victims. Eventually, they invited Ryan and Jacob, who were both paralyzed in the accident, to spend a weekend in Denver and play in a special sled hockey game at DU.
“I didn’t get back on the ice for five or six months, and that’s the longest I think in my life I’ve spent off the ice,” Jacob says of getting back — this time in a new version of the sport.
“The first day he was on, his smile was huge,” adds his dad Kirby. “He came past me and said, ‘Boy did I ever miss this.'”
Taking up sled hockey, which is essentially a new sport for Jacob and Ryan, has its challenges.
“Playing high-level hockey, it’s frustrating when you can’t get things right off the bat in sledge,” Ryan says. “I’ll fall a thousand times, but I’ll keep getting up.”
The game they’ve always played looks and feels a little different now, but the ice will always be home.
“The boys love the ice, they love the camaraderie with their teammates,” says Ryan’s dad, Tom. “They just have a blast and it’s where they grew up and it’s what they love.”
“It’s in our blood,” adds Tyler Cameron, whose son also survived the crash. “So, we’re going to keep going with it. Whatever path that takes, he’ll do it.”
Ryan and Jacob are survivors, but they’re also simply hockey players. And in the months since the crash, they’ve found healing through hockey.
“If you go through tragedy or anything like that, you’ve just got to look for the bright spots and take them,” says Jacob. “Cling to those good moments and make the best of them.”