Little more than a year after the tragic Humboldt Broncos’ bus crash, survivor Layne Matechuk still lights up over hockey.
He’s all smiles when dad Kevin talks about being at the rink, when Kamloops Blazers’ defender Kyrell Sopotyk recalls billeting with him in Prince Albert and, especially, when being presented with a brand-spanking new jersey from the local WHL hockey club, along with an invite to skate with the team in Saskatoon this winter.
At the podium on Thursday night, in front of a crowd of about 80 people at Paramount Theatre, Layne’s smile and strength did not reveal all he has been through: a national tragedy that flipped the hockey world upside down, the death of his friends and teammates, the end of his competitive hockey career and a brain injury — one he is hellbent on overcoming.
“I am not going to let this stop me,” Layne told the crowd, explaining his goal of becoming a physiotherapist. “I will continue to work to get better and I would like to say to everyone to keep working hard, never give up and keep working at getting better.”
The 19-year-old from small-town Colonsay, Sask., is in the Tournament Capital with his family this week, speaking about his brain injury as part of a presentation by the Kamloops Brain Injury Association. Every brain injury is different and Layne’s has impacted him physically and verbally. Kevin said his son is still his son — and Layne’s strength appears to come in part from his parents, Kevin and mom Shelley, who wore Layne’s No. 28 on their backs alongside him.
Kevin described the unexpected nature of the bus crash, which occurred on the sunny day of April 6, 2018. The junior A Humboldt Broncos were en route to a playoff game when the driver of a semi-truck blew through a stop sign, hitting the bus, killing 16 people and injuring 13, including Layne.
Kevin shared the family’s unwavering belief Layne had survived the crash and their experience during Layne’s hospital stay, when he was first in a coma. Hospital staff supported the family in those early days, with one nurse offering advice that stuck: “Bad things happen fast. Good things take time.”
“That is so very true,” Kevin told the crowd in Kamloops.
The road to recovery has not been easy and is far from over.
Layne has to focus on the simplest of tasks, such as walking, continues speech therapy and needs jaw surgery. Also important is rest, nutrition and plenty of things to look forward to, in helping to keep his spirits up. After the public appearance in Kamloops — which includes an appearance at Friday’s Gur Singh Invitational Golf Tournament, which raises money for the Kamloops Brain Injury Association — the family is excited to travel to Vancouver Island to go salmon fishing.
During his post-crash journey, Layne missed high school graduation and his sister’s convocation. However, he has been back on the ice and hopes to one day play recreational hockey.
“This has been a slow process, but the progress he has made is unbelievable,” Kevin said.
The Matechuk family has been grateful to lean on others impacted by the accident. Kevin said the families still talk regularly via group chat. The most surprising thing, he said, is finding that life continues. Healing doesn’t happen overnight, like in the movies. And the biggest obstacle? It links back to the rink.
“I loved watching him play hockey so much that it was devastating to us,” Kevin said. “Not going to the rink. But then, seeing him on skates again. Well, he might not play competitive hockey again, but he might play rec hockey again.”
Kamloops Blazers were on hand Thursday night. They presented Layne with a jersey and invited him for a game-day skate, when the Blazers travel to the Paris of the Prairies to take on the Saskatoon Blades in December.
Blazers’ defender Sopotyk, who lived with Layne in Prince Albert as a 15-year-old midget triple A player in their 2016-2017 season, is looking forward to stepping on the ice with Layne, saying it will bring back memories of when he was a rookie and Layne was a veteran.
“It’ll be a super special moment,” he said.