Kevin Eastwood didn’t fully understand the allure of hockey until he spent time in multiple rural Saskatchewan towns that had been impacted by the Humboldt Broncos tragedy.
The Vancouver filmmaker and his co-director Lucas Frison spent nearly 11 months filming Humboldt: The New Season. Their documentary airs on CBC Television on Aug. 15 and explores the aftermath of the April 2018 bus crash that killed 16 junior hockey players and injured 13.
Eastwood — whose filmography includes After the Sirens (about the PTSD epidemic among first responders), The Death Debate, and two seasons of the award-winning television series Emergency Room: Life + Death at VGH — didn’t grow up playing hockey. He describes himself as somewhat removed from hockey fandom, and not fully grasping how or why hockey came to reign as Canada’s national pastime.
But Eastwood’s world view changed once he began visiting towns in Saskatchewan where “the whole town came out for the games, and it’s this big communal event.” It was in towns like Humboldt, Nipawin and Estevan where Eastwood increasingly noted parallels between junior hockey and his own abiding passion: film.
“Hockey embodies all the same things that I love cinema for: people in a big room experiencing something emotionally at the same time,” marvels Eastwood.
Humboldt: The New Season isn’t really about hockey. It’s not a sports documentary. It’s not even about that horrible April day when the Broncos’ bus collided with a speeding semi-trailer that had failed to yield at a flashing stop sign.
It’s about experiencing trauma and grief, and making room for both in your life, says Eastwood.
“For me, my entry point was looking at how people process grief and proximity to a traumatic event,” says Eastwood.
He came to the project at the invitation of co-director Frison. The latter’s lifelong best friend — Broncos’ assistant coach Mark Cross — died in the crash.
“Often times, when you are close to having almost died yourself and survived, you have a greater appreciation for life,” says Eastwood, who himself survived a devastating heart attack in 2013. “It’s a flip of the coin whether you get post-traumatic stress or a post-traumatic injury, or post-traumatic growth, and often it’s a mix of the two.”
Humboldt: The New Season follows survivors Brayden Camrud and Derek Patter as they return for the 2018-2019 Humboldt hockey season with a different coaching staff and new teammates. Their former teammates Tyler Smith, Kaleb Dahlgren, and Layne Matechuk continue their recovery while trying to pursue their love for hockey along new avenues.
“What I found remarkable about the players we focused on was how incredibly resilient they were, how much strength they had, and how, in the case of somebody like Tyler, even though he wanted to come back, he realized he needed to focus on his own healing, and I think that’s really mature and also something valuable to share with others,” says Eastwood.
Filming began in August 2018. Eastwood says he had no interest in exploitative, extractive journalism — something the Humboldt families were all too familiar with by the time the documentary team arrived.
“This was the first time I had a documentary that was around such a high-profile story where there were so many other outlets on the scene,” says Eastwood. “A few of the families had negative experiences with the media and were wary of us at first, but that changed because we were around for so long. They saw we were interested in building relationships, and that we weren’t there to harvest their story like a commodity.”
Eastwood and Frison never asked the survivors and the families to talk about the crash that had upended their lives, but many brought it up regardless.
“I know from my previous films that part of how some people deal with trauma is talking about it, so maybe we’re helping provide something therapeutic by being a receptacle for sharing their story,” says Eastwood.
Eastwood was especially impressed by the resilience and emotional maturity of the surviving players, in particular Camrud and Pater, who returned to the ice for the new season.
“Sometimes people make assumptions about what kind of people athletes are, and yet these players are really sensitive, thoughtful young men who were in touch with their emotions and problems and thoughts — all of these things we don’t normally associate with young masculinity,” says Eastwood.
Humboldt: The New Season airs on CBC Television’s POV on Aug. 15.