Shelley Smith said it felt good to have so many people packing the stands with her.
Smith, the mother of a Nipawin Hawks player, was one of over 1,200 hockey fans who flooded the community's Centennial Arena Saturday night for the first Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League game since the Humboldt Broncos bus crash rocked the league one week earlier.
"There's a lot of mixed emotions," said Smith from the front row as her niece held up a sign created in memory of the Broncos team members killed in the crash.
"You have to move forward, you have to survive but you also have to thrive," said Smith. "You have to have some compassion and you have to have some purpose."
'They need closure'
League president Bill Chow had announced earlier in the week that the championship finals between the Estevan Bruins and the Nipawin Hawks would go on in the wake of the tragedy.
The Hawks were originally set to finish off a semifinal with the Broncos until the April 6 crash near Tisdale killed 16 Broncos team members.
Jim Goodlad, who drove to Saturday's Nipawin game from Melfort, Sask., said the league made the right call.
"I know there will be some people who think that after a tragedy like this, that it should be called [off]," he said.
But, he added, "Those other young hockey players, the ones in Nipawin and Estevan, they need closure. And when they're on the ice, that is the love, that's what's brought all those young guys on that bus."
Signs of quiet mourning were everywhere Saturday.
Many people, including premier Scott Moe, wore yellow-and-green ribbons in memory of the Broncos.
To the left of the arena's front entrance stood a photo display of Broncos team members, with "April 6, 2018" listed by the names of those killed in the crash.
A referee's jersey said, simply, "Broncos."
Three-dollar cotton candy was on offer, with all proceeds going to the Broncos.
Shannon Appenmaier was among those wearing green "Humboldt Strong" T-shirts from Nipawin Embroidery and Design Ltd.
"The crash kinda stunned everyone," he said. "Hockey didn't become so important anymore. But life goes on."
Moments before the game, Bruins left-winger Jayden Davis wore headphones as he did stretches near the walkway to the ice.
He and his teammates had visited the crash site, at the intersection of Highways 35 and 335, during their five-hour drive up from Estevan.
"It puts everything into perspective, how crazy it was that there was a bus accident there a week ago," Davis said. "It just kinda made it more real for everybody."
"I think it will definitely help the healing process," he said of getting back on the ice. "I feel we're coming here to play for something. I think we need to play for them."
As game time neared, some of the first responders on the evening of April 6 walked onto centre ice. There, they were cheered on by the roaring crowd before being encircled by players from the Hawks and Bruins.
A moment of silence followed. Then, with the brief ceremony over, an announcer called on the arena to make some noise. The crowd more than obliged.
The game settled into its normal rhythm. During first period, Shelley Smith recalled what went through her mind during the game-opening puck drop.
"I was feeling proud that the boys could stand there together. [And I] feel sad for the people who won't be able to stand there again."
In the end, the Bruins took the match 5-2, but all round, it seems both teams and everyone in attendance won in their efforts to help Humboldt.