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Camrose mourns former Kodiaks player

By Josh Aldrich, Camrose Canadian

The slow healing process has begun for those affected by the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.

The funerals for the 16 who died began this past weekend, but communities around the country have been grieving in their own way. Jersey day inspired many throughout the hockey world to pull on a hockey sweater on April 12 while many others have honoured those who died with the simple gesture of leaving a stick out underneath a porch light.

The Camrose Kodiaks and the Camrose Primary Care Network hosted a community gathering last Thursday to grieve and celebrate former Kodiaks defenceman Stephen Wacker at the Recreation Centre,, and an estimated 250 people came out.

"You've all driven a bus, we’ve all driven a van, the school buses," said Kodiaks head coach and general manager Boris Rybalka. "It's something that everybody's lived. That's something I'm most proud about this country, this world, that's shown the strength that everyone has shown, there's not a person here that didn't understand what happened on Friday."

Bill Harder, the program director for the Hospice Society of Camrose, led the evening. He addressed the pain and the hurt many were going through in the aftermath of the bus crash. Many at the gathering had known Wack, while for others it hit a little too close to home.

A moment of silence was held, which Harder broke by the ringing of a bell, which he said signified sorrow and sadness leaving us.

"There is an unwritten cultural rule that our children out live us, that we don't bury our young," he said. "It's a cultural rule, we trust in that. It gets broken numerous times by illness or injury or accident, and when this happens we feel a communal sense of outrage that a rule got broken, this shouldn't happen. The ringing of this bell is just that moment when we say to the world 'This breaks us.' It hurts us as individuals and people when our young die."

There were many stories told about Wack during the evening. Most of them revolved around his love of his brother Justin.

In the two seasons he played for the Kodiaks, he was billeted by Ron Pilger and his family.

"Stephen had a discipline about going to bed on time, and not all Kodiaks, quite frankly, have that," he said. "But it's a reflection of the way Stephen was brought up, it's a reflection of his dedication to his sport and a reflection of his dedication to life itself. He really lived by the rules, he was serious about his hockey career and he wanted it to go on forever."

For Landon Pilger, having Wack stay with his family was like gaining a brother, and losing him now was like losing a family member.

"He had a huge heart, he was the most humble guy, he never had a bad thing to say about anyone, never complained and he would do anything for anyone," he said.

Tim Ellis has been calling Kodiaks games for the last decade. He remembers Wack being a very quiet person, and he did not do a lot to grab your attention on the ice but that's how you knew he was doing his job.

"He was on defence and he was a big kid … all defenceman have a mean streak, but you didn't see it that much," he said. "Just because of his size and ability on the back end, he was a shut down defencmen and a big guy who commanded a lot of respect, and I know he had the respect of his teammates and the locker room."

Ellis was just sitting down to watch Game 5 of the Alberta Junior Hockey league South DIvision final when word started to trickle out about the incident. Immediately he was transported back to the 1986 bus crash that killed four Swift Current Broncos, including his family friend Brent Ruff. He was working in Edson at the time and reading the news off the wire over the air when he got that news. This time a lump in his throat formed when he saw Justin Wack tweet out "I love you Stephen."

"My mind started turning saying this is not good," said Ellis. "I went to bed that night hoping and praying that it wasn't Stephen who was one of the dead. I woke up Saturday morning and found out he was."

A celebration of life was held on Tuesday for Wack and three of his Edmonton area teammates who also died in the crash – Jaxon Joseph, Logan Hunter and Parker Tobin. Thousands packed Rogers Place in in downtown Edmonton for the ceremony.

Last Thursday, Camrose Mayor Norm Mayer was talking about the need to grieve, to cry, and to seek support if needed. It will be as a group that the hockey community heals.

"We will get over it together and we will move forward in the same process we've been in before. We'll be sending young fellows out on a bus, praying that they will return safe and sound, and that's all we can do. That's the way life is and we live it day by day, you make the best of it day by day."  

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