Everything is different now for Brayden Camrud.
This past summer when Camrud skated into Alaska and began to write his next chapter in life, while there were no doubt butterflies in his stomach at times, the 21-year-old walked into the Seawolf locker room with a relaxed confidence; something you don't often see in the ever-changing and stressed-filled environment of college hockey.
To most WCHA rookies dealing with the task of trying to cement themselves into a line-up where the level of competition was going to be intense and position battles were evaluated on a second-by-second, shift-by-shift basis, the gravity of the situation could be back-breaking to most.
For Camrud, the freshman's outlook on things was more centered than most. He knew all he could do was play. He understood that wondering about what was going to happen tomorrow or the day after that was just wasted energy. After all, regret and worry have no place on the ice; or in life. He was already well aware that even though at times living in the moment can be intimidating - it was still living, because in the blink of an eye; and whether you see it coming or not, that "moment" can be taken from you. In a second everything can change. Everything.
On April 6, 2018 life changed for Camrud, the entire Humboldt Broncos organization and their families, the Humboldt, Saskatchewan community, anyone who had a connection with the game of hockey and even those who didn't pay attention to the sport, because tragedy isn't restricted just to the game you play, the type of uniform you wear or the talent you have.
Camrud and his Bronco teammates were headed to Nipawin, Saskatchewan to play the Hawks when a semi-trailer truck crashed into them near the town of Armley. Sixteen on the bus died; including 10 players for the Broncos. Thirteen were transported to hospitals across the province; including Camrud. At the time the 19-year-old forward was in his second season with Humboldt. Just prior to the crash Camrud remembers closing his eyes so his mind could start to focus on the upcoming playoff game with Nipawin. Little did he know that the next time he would open his eyes his attention and the focus of the world would be on so much more.
The injuries were extensive - a severe concussion with some bleeding on his brain, a chip to a bone in his spine that caused some loss of feeling in his left arm which he deals with even today. Then there was a stint of pneumonia; the bi-product of being treated by EMS personnel on scene in the frigid central Canada air.
In all Camrud spent six days in the hospital followed by weeks of bed rest at home before the idea of lacing up his skates was even an option. But playing the game of hockey after that night in April, there was never really an option. The question of "will he or won't he" or "should he or shouldn't he" may have been asked by others but not by him. That decision was made the moment Camrud learned about the 16 friends who didn't make it off the bus that night and the countless others who survived but could no longer play the game they loved. To him, playing the game of hockey quickly became more than just, well, a game.
"It was more than just me; it was for the families and my teammates," explained Camrud, when asked about the decision to play hockey again despite the physical and emotional effects of the crash. "Unlike with some of my teammates just having the ability to still be able to walk and still get an opportunity to play the game, it's what I wanted to do for them."
It's a mission he's been on ever since and a passion that grows inside of him with every shift, every game and every personal goal he accomplishes along the way. To him, with each step he takes those 16 angels are firmly planted on his shoulder and their memories will forever be etched in his heart and mind.
Like everyone else associated with the game of hockey, Matt Curley knew the story. To this day he remembers where he was when he first saw the news headlines covering the crash dominate the television. He still can describe how he felt and the overwhelming feeling of sadness that rushed over him with each detail that followed. The head coach of the EC Red Bull Salzburg junior program in Austria, little did he know that part of the Humboldt Broncos story would one day collide with his career.
One year later and midway through his first season as head coach for Alaska Anchorage, Curley and his staff were on the hunt for the type of character and talent they needed to turn the Seawolves program around. It was around that time that Curley and his staff first began to focus in on Brayden Camrud.
Camrud, now nearly a year removed from the accident was one of three survivors who returned to play for Humboldt the season after the incident and was serving as one of the Broncos' captains. He was excelling beyond everyone's expectations; both on and off the ice. By the time the Seawolves officially offered Camrud a scholarship the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native was scoring at a clip of more than a point per game. Still, even though hockey was the key that would ultimately open the door to UAA, Curley and his staff needed to first know where Camrud was in the game of life. It's one of those time periods he will never forget.
"I remember we started recruiting him January (2019)," Curley said. "We were out at some showcases watching him and following him and we were looking for a guy to join our recruiting class late in the process. We were very aware of his history and what he went through but at the same time he was a great hockey player. Through the recruiting process, when talking to him and his family, we were very open and honest about his history and his background; we didn't shy away from the hard questions out of fairness and understanding to him. I think that was needed and what he deserved. We didn't shy away from getting in deep in terms of figuring him out and making him feel comfortable with us as well. Through that process the ultimate decision was based on his ability as a hockey player and his character as a person. He sold us immediately based on his maturity and we knew he was exactly what we were looking for."
Even though Anchorage was more than 40 hours away from his hometown, Camrud felt the same way. He couldn't quite explain why but it just felt right.
"I've lived in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan my entire life," Camrud said. "I've done some traveling but I have never been away from my home so to think that I would one day end up in Alaska; especially with what happened, it's a pretty ridiculous thing to think about. Coming here, I wanted to be a solution to the problem. They had a rough year last year and I wanted to help turn that around. I felt I could make an impact here and after talking to the coaching staff they felt the same way and it just clicked. Being in Humboldt; our team colors were green and gold there as well and then seeing Alaska's colors it just felt like it was home. It felt meant to be."
On October 25, the Seawolves faced off against rival Alaska in Anchorage in the first game of the prestigious Governor's Cup. At the 15:43 mark of the first period, Camrud recorded another checkmark on the already overflowing ledger of firsts since the accident. He notched his first collegiate goal after the rookie forward stole an errant puck and eventually deposited it into the Nanooks net.
At that moment, if he would have listened closely, Camrud's coaches and teammates would have heard cheers all the way from Humboldt; claps and whistles from across Canada, from across North America and throughout the entire hockey world. The loudest roar definitely came from Saskatoon, where folks had been riding the same roller coaster with him since that devastating night 19 months ago.
"It was very emotional, I was so happy," Camrud recalled. "The people in my life, the ones that I have been so lucky to have on my side; who have continued to support me through the good and the bad and have always been there for me, I was so happy to be able to accomplish something like that.
"My mom texted me after the game and described the moment and how everyone back home at their house reacted to it. It made me pretty emotional. My dad's not a huge guy for showing his emotions but when I got the text that he was tearing up a little bit it made me extremely happy. To know he's proud of me and to know it's not only my dream to continue to play hockey at the highest level possible but it's also his dream to see his son's success in such a way, it was just a great feeling."
The tears of pride.
No doubt proud of the player. Even more so, proud of the person who could have let one moment in his life derail his dreams. After being blessed with the chance to give hockey another shot- something that many of his teammates never got the opportunity to do, proud of the role model who continues to carry on the memory of his fallen friends and their families who now find themselves living their hockey dream through one of the lucky ones - a true miracle on ice. Most of all though; proud of the young man who after the crash chose to use his past to positively affect the future - both his and others. Yes that first career marker was much more than just a goal.
Now nine games and four points into his college career, more milestone moments are sure to follow but don't expect him to worry about the little things like when or how. On a roster filled with a mix of upperclassmen and underclassmen; with players from all walks of life and area codes, Brayden Camrud just continues to calmly take everything in stride. That's what he's done and has had to do since that devastating April night, the date when things like age and class rank were replaced with the power of appreciation and gratitude.
With each major moment, Camrud knows the Humboldt Broncos story won't be far behind. It's something he's embraced just as long as the story is written the right way. In short, he wants his journey to inspire. He wants to make a difference; leaders in life always do. It's one of the many lasting lessons that was passed down to him from former Humboldt team captain Logan Schatz. Schatz, a multi-year captain for Humboldt at the time, was one of the 16 victims of the crash.
"Logan pulled me aside one night and talked about how proud he was of me and how he was ready to pass that leadership role onto me," Camrud said. "That has always stuck with me. I like to think I am a good speaker and because of the things I have gone through and the people I have had in my life, I feel I am able to connect with my teammates and try to bring the best out of them. I do feel like I am a leader on and off the ice and I think a lot of that has to do with what happened.
"The other day I was thinking about what I could do in my lifetime to have the most impact on as many people as possible. How can I leave a mark with them and they become better people because of it. Obviously being tied to what happened, I don't want it to be something that defines me but if I am able to show people that even though I have gone through something like that I am still able to continue to work towards these goals; I think that's kind of the way I see myself and the role I am supposed to play."
"All of us have our own histories and backgrounds," Curley said. "We have all been through situations that are unique and have a deeply personal effect on the individual. We all have things going on outside of the rink that we all have to shoulder and have to carry. I think for Brayden, going through his history and what he's had to go through, I think like a lot of us, it puts things into perspective. He's serves as such a great role model for this program and we are so incredibility happy to have him. He's exactly the kind of person we have been looking for to help change our culture and turn our program around."