'Heart of a lion': Injured Broncos player returns to Saskatchewan with the York Lions men's team

One of the Humboldt Broncos players who survived the horrific bus crash in April will lace up his skates for York University's men's hockey team in Saskatchewan Thursday evening, as the team honours Mark Cross, a former York player and Broncos assistant coach who died in the crash.

Kaleb Dahlgren, 21, is still recovering from the brain injury he suffered in the tragic crash, so he can't play. But he will be on the York Lions bench wearing his old number, 16, which now carries extra meaning.

"It honours the 16 people in the accident that aren't here today," Dahlgren told CBC Toronto's Dwight Drummond on Tuesday.

"It's a nice, constant reminder," he said. 

"It's that extra little motivation. When I do strap on the laces, I have something of them that I am now wearing with me, no matter what."

The York team will play four games in Saskatchewan against other university teams, including one at the rink in Humboldt, as part of the Mark Cross Humboldt Strong Remembrance Tour.

The tour will raise money for a scholarship in Cross's name and also for a sports fund in his hometown, Strasbourg, Sask., population 752.

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The York University team will also participate in school visits, hold hockey clinics and attend community events.

York's coach Russ Herrington first came up with the idea for the tour during Cross's memorial, sitting at the Strasbourg rink, surrounded by friends and family members distraught to have lost him.

"I thought, 'You know what, these people didn't get to see where Mark went when he left, so I want to bring York here, so that they can see,'" said Herrington. 

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"They never got to see Mark play in a York jersey, but we could bring the York jerseys there."

Cross played five seasons at York, winning the Most Valuable Player award in his last year, before returning to Strasbourg to coach midget hockey, then going on to coach in Humboldt.

The tour begins in Lumsden, Sask., with York facing off against the University of Regina, followed by what's sure to be an emotional night Friday at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home ice for the Humboldt Broncos, where York will play the University of Calgary.

Even Dahlgren being on the team today is in part due to Cross.

Herrington says Dahlgren emailed him months before the crash, expressing his interest in playing with York. Herrington then went to Cross for his advice.

"A person like Mark Cross raves about someone else's character and makeup, then it was an easy sell," Herrington explained. "He told us, 'You have to take Kaleb Dahlgren,' which is the best recommendation anyone can get."

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For now, Dahlgren practises wearing a gold jersey, which reminds his teammates to keep their distance and not use contact.

It's not clear when, or if, he'll be able to play hockey again. 

But his coach says Dahlgren still plays a valuable role, motivating the rest of the team, as well as providing an ongoing connection to both the Humboldt tragedy and Cross, who played with York until 2016, and was a teammate of some of the current players.

York team will wear Mark Cross's initials and number on their equipment

Dahlgren is grateful he can be part of a hockey team again, even if it's not in his usual role.

"To be able to be in the position that I'm in is something remarkable," he said. "I wanted to make the most of it, I didn't want to sit at home and just wait."

All season, the York Lions will wear MC18 emblazoned on their equipment to honour Cross's old number, and a Humboldt Broncos sticker on their helmets.

"It will be a special season for Mark, too," Dalgren said. "He embraced the heart of a lion."