Fans of the Humboldt Broncos have been through an emotional 2018, but the end might just have been the most mysterious.
No one needs to be reminded any more of how when the Broncos bus crashed that lives were ended, and those whose lives weren't ended were changed forever. Only a couple of survivors – Brayden Camrud and Derek Patter – were able to start the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League season and another player, Tyler Smith, joined later only to quit after a few games. These people's lives were changed, but in stepped Nathan Oystrick to take over the coaching reins from the incomparable Darcy Haugan.
Oystrick moved his family there, aware of not only the impact that junior hockey can have on a Saskatchewan community as a Regina native, but with a National Hockey League playing pedigree.
With an almost entirely new roster of players other teams could afford to lose, plus a few players picked up through trades for player development fees, the Broncos lost their home opener of the season 2-1 to the Nipawin Hawks in front of a sold out arena and a national television audience on The Sports Network.
Tears were shed on the ice as the numbers and profiles of all of those players, coaches and staff affected were placed in the rafters.
With the team battling along with a first place record for part of the season, they battled a bit of a low-key slump with their last few games.
Just after Christmas, the team and the coach parted ways. No explanation was given and the team released a statement indicating none would ever be given. Message boards and Twitter lit up in speculation because nothing was told publicly.
The dismissal of Oystrick seems to make little sense from a hockey standpoint. The Broncos are in a tough division with the Battlefords North Stars, the resurgent Kindersley Klippers and the always competitive Notre Dame Hounds. Until a week or so ago, the Broncos with their piecemeal roster were as good as or better than all of them, and the coach should have gotten a lot of credit for that.
Something is amiss, though. The chemistry of a junior hockey team is a funny thing to try to perfect. Sometimes outsiders aren't exactly given a fair shake to try to do it and every member of a team's volunteer board fancies themselves as a general manager.
In the height of one SJHL team's success in the mid to late 90s, fans were upset that a head coach/general manager had chosen to go with imports from other parts of Canada rather than 'local boys', even as the team was in the top three or four teams of the league each year and those imports were consistently getting scholarships – ultimately one of the key goals of every team in the league.
There's always a separate issue when the 'local boys' decide to go to the British Columbia Junior Hockey League or the Alberta Junior Hockey League to try to play in front of scouts that may never see them otherwise, but that's something else entirely.
But this desire for board members to try to influence on-ice personnel has happened in communities other than Humboldt and will continue to happen for as long as boards run their teams' off-ice personnel. Chris Lewgood has solid connections and scouting throughout North Dakota, British Columbia and the Regina and Balgonie areas and the Bruins haven't been short of talent in recent years because of it.
I think most people were glad to have players here that were from other parts of North America, and after all, the team did go to the Canalta Cup final last year.
But Oystrick? We'll apparently never know the cause of his dismissal. There was clearly friction with the board, though, that much seems obvious.
I think just maybe he deserved better treatment from Humboldt given what he was able to do under the impossible circumstances he was under. I suspect some other team just got themselves a really good coach.