‘Life on the other side of tragedy’: Colorado burn victim pays a weekend visit to the Humboldt Broncos

“He is the toughest guy you’re ever going to meet in your life.”

Dave Repsher, who loves hockey, has not been able to enjoy the simple, happy joy of gliding on a patch of ice. Not since this past summer.

“Unfortunately, where one of my wounds is, I can’t put on skates,” Repsher says simply.

A horrific 2015 helicopter crash in Colorado continues to burden Repsher’s body. It also sent him on a journey up the fast-growing Denver-to-Humboldt pipeline this past weekend.

Repsher spent quality time with the Humboldt Broncos, and visited the site where the team bus collided with a semi in 2018, killing 16 and injuring 13 more.

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Repsher is no stranger to the frighteningly-fast way life can change: The Colorado flight nurse was burned on over 90 per cent of his body in that 2015 helicopter crash that happened seconds after takeoff. He was soaked in fuel that gushed from a ruptured tank, and engulfed in a ball of flame. He was not expected to survive the incident, spent more than five months in a coma, and more than a year in hospital.

The crash killed pilot Pat Mahaney.

“There’s always something,” he says. “They describe burns as the gift that keeps on giving. Don’t get me wrong — I’m very happy with where I’ve been able to get back to. I still have issues with wounds, and skin break-down, things like that. It’s just part of what it is. It is frustrating, but for me, going through all this is a means to an end. I want to get back to being out there on the ice, and doing the activities I still love to do, when I can do them.”

‘TOUGHEST GUY YOU’RE EVER GOING TO MEET’

Repsher won a $100-million settlement after the crash, and helicopters are safer now because of what happened to him. There’s the implementation of crash-resistant fuel systems, for example. Repsher and wife Amanda continue to fight for safety measures, and are heading this week to a California conference, where he’s part of a safety working group.

“He is the toughest guy you’re ever going to meet in your life,” says Marty Richardson, who heads up the Denver-based Dawg Nation Hockey Foundation, which has provided extensive support both to Repsher and to Broncos players and families.

“(Former player) Peter McNab said he’d been in the NHL a long time, he’d met some of the toughest hockey players you could know — Terry O’Reilly, John Wensink, all these different guys. And he said nobody’s tougher than Dave Repsher. The stuff he endured …”

Repsher talks about the tragedy using words like “we” and “our” — referring both to himself and to wife Amanda, who remains a steady and loving presence, all these years later.

“A big part of our recovery has been hockey,” says Repsher, who attended a Saskatoon Blades game on Friday and a Broncos contest on Saturday. “Don’t get me wrong — I was a very bad beer-league hockey player. I came into it late. But after our crash and our injuries and our history, one of the big groups that stepped forward right away was the hockey community.”

Dave and Amanda were high bidders in a Dawg Nation fund-raising auction recently, which resulted in the trip to Humboldt. They talked to the current team in the dressing room, shared their story with people in the city, and spent time with family members both at the crash site and elsewhere. Dave dropped the puck before Saturday’s game.

They also met with crew-members at Saskatoon’s STARS Air Ambulance hangar — a place that carried special meaning for both, given their past nursing careers, and Dave’s time as a flight nurse. STARS provided life-saving services during the Broncos crash.

repsher
Dave Repsher talks to the Humboldt Broncos in their dressing room Saturday. (Marty Richardson, supplied photo)

The weekend visit was a fresh addition to that aforementioned pipeline between Humboldt and Denver. Dawg Nation has provided financial support to Broncos players and family members, and Richardson has gotten to know many people connected to that team.

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In January, families of those who died as a result of the crash — the “Broncos Angels,” as Kurt Leicht calls them — traveled to Denver as guests of Dawg Nation. Eight of the 16 families made it down there. They watched a university hockey game and an Avalanche contest, and met with former Avalanche star Joe Sakic — a former Swift Current Bronco who was on that team’s bus when it crashed in 1986, killing four.

Colorado head coach Jared Bednar, who was raised in Humboldt and played for the Broncos, has been a steady help and co-hosts the annual Humboldt Broncos Memorial Golf Tournament.

“There’s a lot of ties (between the cities). It’s something special, in many ways,” says Leicht, whose son Jacob died in the collision.

“(The trip to Denver) was so awesome. A great time. And our Bronco families just love being together. We share something special, and it’s a big part of us.”

Dawg Nation started out as a beer-league hockey team called the Dawgs — “our little hockey family,” as Richardson puts it.

‘WE SHOULD DO SOMETHING SPECIAL’

In February of 2009, three Dawgs players were diagnosed with various forms of cancer. The team raised money for their support, and all three players are with the team today. Later that same year, another player was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and he died six months later.

“When that happened, I decided either we should disband this team — it’s pretty bad luck — or we should do something special,” Richardson says. “I started a charity, and we would have found a way cooler name, had I known it was going to blow up. We’re now 13 years later, and we’ve given away almost $5 million to hockey families.

“We had tragedy in our own room; we knew there’s got to be others. A couple of things made it really take off, and one of those was the Humboldt accident.”

That latter connection began with Dawg Nation providing support to Broncos survivor Ryan Straschnitzki, and it soon broadened. Richardson says 11 of 13 survivors have been to Denver as guests of the group, and this weekend, they provided $3,500 scholarships — now an annual gift — to Broncos players Spencer Bell and Cage Newans. On Sunday, they surprised Broncos assistant coach Carter Hansen, whose daughter has spent the first several weeks of her life in hospital, with a cheque for $5,000.

“They bring a lot of energy, which we all need at times,” Leicht says.

Meanwhile, many families with ties to that Broncos crash fight for changes, including a renewed emphasis on trucking safety and regulations. There’s parallels to the battle Dave and Amanda have waged in regards to helicopter safety mechanisms that they hope will prevent future tragedies.

“Like I’m sure the folks in Humboldt are facing, it’s a tough process to get things changed,” says Dave Repsher. “You face a lot of head-winds, in a lot of different directions. You just do what you can. Advocacy for helicopter safety is a big part of what we do right now.

“Since our crash they’ve made some upgrades and some new regulations, for mandatory crash-resistant fuel systems on all new helicopters. While it takes care of the newer ones, there’s still a legacy fleet out there that doesn’t have it. The big push for us now is to try to get some regulations to impact that legacy fleet.

Broncos.
Dave Repsher, with wife Amanda on the left, continues to work on recovery after a 2015 helicopter crash changed their lives. (Michelle Berg, Saskatoon StarPhoenix)

“You hope you didn’t go through all this in vain — that something can come out of it. Even if it doesn’t, just that process of trying to do that, at least for us, has been very healing on its own. It gives a purpose and a meaning to what happened. The pursuit is possibly just as valuable as the end goal.”

And while they wage that battle, they continue a never-ending push for physical healing. Dave says he and Amanda are “joined at the hip these days — our relationship has gotten a lot stronger through this whole process. It’s a team effort, to keep doing this.

“It’s very strange,” he adds, “but a lot of times, we refer to what happened as a gift. It allowed us to see a whole different side of humanity. We’ve met so many new people, and had a second life, almost, from this event.

“We obviously wish it had never happened, for many reasons — we lost a good friend in that crash — and it’s a whole different life than we had before. Completely different. We just try to make sure it’s the best one we can make out of it, and honestly, strangely enough, it’s been a gift in a lot of ways to meet a whole new group of people and have a whole different life. Bad things happen to people every day. If we can try to move forward, maybe not dwell on the past if you can … that’s what’s gotten us through.”

Amanda nods as he speaks.

“We’ve been blessed in so many ways, and we continue to be blessed,” she says. “Any way we can give back and show people there is life on the other side of tragedy, that’s a big deal for us.

“We’re both nurses and paramedics. We’ve seen our fair share of horrific crashes. What happened to (the Broncos) is the worst of the worst, and our hearts go out to everybody involved. We give them all the love and support we can.”

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