On the ice playing hockey is where Kaleb Dahlgren feels most at home.
“I think it was knocked into me by my dad a bit,” Dahlgren told Global News. “[There are] pictures of me dressed up in his hockey [gear] — big gloves, big skates on my feet, and just a little infant in that is pretty funny”
The 21-year-old is in his first year at York University.
But getting here has been a challenge. Not because of his talent, but because of where Dahlgren was on April 6.
“[It was a] normal game day and we went on the bus and just got ready to go and we were heading out and just before I asked Nick Shumlanski just in front of me where he lived and he said, ‘Oh it’s coming up,’” Dahlgren recalled.
“I said, ‘Oh that’s awesome’ and then Parker Tobin, a couple seats to the front right of us, was like, ‘Oh nobody cares!’ And then everybody on the bus starts laughing, and then I came back ‘Well I care’ and then everyone still kept on laughing.”
It was a happy moment — just like any other team would have on the road.
Afterward, Dahlgren tossed on his headphones and took the time to focus on the game ahead.
He said he doesn’t remember anything from the crash, only foggy moments after he woke up in hospital four days later.
Before the crash, York University identified Dahlgren as a prospective player thanks to Humboldt’s assistant coach and recent York graduate Mark Cross.
Coach Russ Herrington knew Cross well, and said he trusted what Cross had to say about Dahlgren.
“It was clear Kaleb was very caring empathetic individual, we knew he would fit in with our culture here,” Herrington said. “It really didn’t take very long into our season to decide that he would fit what the York Lions stand for”
Typically York University waits to make an offer to prospective players until after their season is over because it’s not something they want to “throw at them” while they are still in playoff contention, Herrington said.
When images of the crash started to emerge, Herrington said he felt an instant sense of dread.
“It was a very difficult long night, for myself personally but also the York Family,” he recalled. “We knew Mark was on that bus, we knew Kaleb was on that bus [and] we were actually recruiting three of his teammates as well.”
Worst case scenario quickly turned into sharp reality as 16 people died, including Cross and the three other York recruits. But remarkably Dahlgren survived.
“I rolled over and I looked around and I kind of laughed to myself cause I thought I was still dreaming,” he recalled.
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“I looked and my parents were there and I was like, ‘I’m dreaming aren’t I?’ And they [said], ‘What do you mean?’ I was like, ‘I’m dreaming’ and they were like, ‘No you’re not.’
“I looked again and I was like, ‘How did our game go last night like did we win?”
His parents didn’t hold back explaining what had happened.
But Dahlgren only wanted to know about his teammates — his hockey family.
“I said ‘pull up the roster and go down the whole roster’ and so they did that and [I] found out everything about everyone at that time and that was a lot for me to take in,” he said.
The physical toll on Dahlgren was also extensive.
His injuries included a brain injury, a fractured skull, a puncture wound inside the skull, road rash and several broken vertebrae.
There was no clear sign what his future would look like.
“He kept hounding us to contact the coaches that were recruiting him and let them know that he was okay and he would be able to play again,” his father Mark said. “We were reluctant to do that because we didn’t know if he’d be able to play again.”
And yet not even six months later, Dahlgren was on the ice wearing the Lion’s jersey he had set his sights on more than a year ago.
Herrington said hedidn’t want to pressure Dahlgren, but wanted him to know that he was welcome at York — no matter how long his recovery took.
“I explained to Kaleb and his family that as long as I was in the position of head coach, that offer stood. It didn’t matter if it was September 2018, September 2025, whenever he was at stage where he could come to university, he had a spot at York,” Herrington said. “And if he gets to play, terrific, and if he doesn’t, he’ll be part of the team no matter what.”
There are limits to what Dahlgren can do.
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In practice he wears a yellow jersey that means he can’t play contact, and likely won’t for some time.
But Dahlgren said he plans to keep up his training and get good grades in school.
He’s studying business commerce. Dahlgren said he wants to maybe play in Europe one day and perhaps pursue a career in education.
Looking ahead towards his son’s bright future, Mark tears up speaking about the possibilities.
“I dont know if it happens very often that a parent looks up to their kid, and you know I look up to him more than I look up to anybody else in this world,” he said.
As for right now, Dahlgren is taking things one day at a time.
He always carries a Humboldt pin on him, never forgetting the people who didn’t survive.
“I miss them so much, but I try to look at the positives and that’s what I’ve been doing so I try to think of them for motivation,” Dahlgren said, adding he chose to wear the number 16 for the upcoming hockey season.
“Hence the reason why I chose the number 16 this year representing the 16 people that passed away,” he said.
Dahlgren said it’s a constant reminder to try and do his best for them.
“They’re calling me a miracle but like I don’t really consider myself a miracle,” he said.
“I consider myself to be thankful that I’m here and able to achieve and pursue my dreams and passions.”
© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.