By Pam Wright/Special to The Voice
Kaleb Dahlgren’s actions personify what it means to “stay strong and carry on.”
In fact, the 22-year-old York University student is Humboldt Strong – a survivor of a horrific crash in Saskatchewan on April 6, 2018 that killed 16 people affiliated with the Broncos Junior ‘A’ hockey team. Thirteen, including Dahlgren, were seriously injured.
Dahlgren, who uses obstacles in his life as motivation, brought his powerful message of resilience to Chatham-Kent Saturday as the guest speaker at the 39th annual Wallaceburg Sports Hall of Fame event.
“Everyone has battles,” he told the sold-out crowd at the UAW hall. “The most important thing is to enjoy the grind. Enjoy it for what it is,” he said. “Control the things you can control.”
Dahlgren, an assistant captain who plays centre and right wing, had his ear buds in and was changing the music when the team bus — enroute to a playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks — was struck by a tractor-trailer whose driver missed a stop sign.
Ten players were killed, along with the Bronco’s head coach and assistant coach, the team’s athletic therapist, a broadcaster and volunteer statistician, as well as the bus driver.
Despite a third-degree brain injury, Dahlgren regained consciousness three days later with his parents at his side. He couldn’t remember what had happened and thought maybe he had been hit from behind in the game.
It was then he learned of the fate of his teammates and the others who died in the crash.
Most people don’t survive such catastrophic trauma – injuries that also included several broken vertebrae – and Dahlgren doesn’t take what many call a “miracle” for granted.
“I’ll always be grateful,” he added.
Even before the accident, Dahlgren was no stranger to adversity. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age four, but he never let it stop him from playing the game he loved.
Born in Moosejaw and raised in Saskatoon, Dahlgren told a story of once being cut from the best team in his age group, as organizers thought his disease would distract other players.
He ended up making the second-tier team and in the first game against the team that didn’t want him, he scored a hat trick.
“It was retaliation in a good sense,” he explained with a grin. “Positive in a good way.”
Dahlgren said looking on the bright side was “ingrained in him at a young age.
“My parents taught me to focus on the things I can control,” he explained, adding he’s learned to accept the things he can’t control.
The Humboldt crash is one of those. But while it has shaped Dahlgren’s life, the unspeakable tragedy doesn’t define it. Again, he has turned a negative into a life-changing positive.
Dahlgren said he still can’t believe the outpouring of support Humboldt has received, not only from Canada, but also from around the world.
“I can’t get over it,” he said. “Honestly.”
Dahlgren became the defacto team member who spoke on behalf of the other survivors. Because of his work as an ambassador for diabetes, he had experience dealing with the media.
“It was overwhelming,” he added, noting that initially there were more than 500 requests for interviews in the months after the tragedy. “We had to hire a company to manage it.”
The hardest part of the ordeal, Dahlgren said, was not being able to attend the funerals of his teammates as he was still recovering. But he said he goes back to Humboldt whenever he can and stays in close contact with his other surviving teammates.
He said he’s done his best to honour the memories of those who died.
Dahlgren was recruited by York University in his last year with the Broncos and was brought on despite his injuries. He’s now in the second year of a commerce degree at York. He works out and practices with the hockey team but has yet to be cleared to play contact.
The dogged athlete follows a rigorous rehabilitation regime – he was skating a month after the accident — and is scheduled for another assessment by team doctors in February.
Dahlgren, a prairie boy now turned Torontonian, plans on becoming a chiropractor after finishing at York. He wants to specialize in sports medicine and “give back.”
He also plans on continuing work with ‘Dahlgren’s Diabeauties’ – a program he started as a teen to help youngsters with diabetes live normal lives and achieve their dreams.
It was his ambition even before the crash, he notes.
“My goal still is to make a difference in even one person’s life.”