An Ontario university hockey team has landed in Saskatchewan for a tour of exhibition games to honour one of their alumni.
Mark Cross played for the York University Lions for five seasons between 2011 and 2016 before returning to his home province of Saskatchewan.
He was an assistant coach with the Humboldt Broncos when their team bus collided with a semi near Melfort on April 6, killing him and 15 others and injuring 13.
To keep his memory alive, the Lions men’s hockey team decided to come west for a weekend series against Canada West conference squads called the Mark Cross Humboldt Strong Remembrance Tour.
“Mark was the heartbeat of our program, and he continues to be,” said Russ Herrington, head coach of the Lions.
“We wanted to bring York to Mark’s hometown and home province. We wanted our players to get a better understanding of why Mark was the way he was.”
The coach was hired by York in the 2015-16 season, Cross’ final year as a player at the Toronto-based university.
The team was in need of a culture change — both on the ice and in the community — after placing at the bottom of the Ontario University Athletics conference the previous season, and Herrington said Cross led the charge.
“He bought into everything we asked him to do … He only had one year left and he wanted to make sure he left that legacy behind,” Herrington said.
“Our players strive to do it the way Mark did it.”
A year after Cross graduated and returned to Saskatchewan, York won their first OUA championship in 13 years.
Despite not being on the roster that season, Cross is still credited with helping build the foundation that led to the trophy.
“I can tell you 100 per cent he was the biggest reason why we won that championship,” Herrington said.
“We had more talented players than Mark Cross, guys with more skill … but if it wasn’t for the culture that Mark allowed us to breed in our dressing room we would not have achieved to that level.”
When Cross became the assistant coach for the Humboldt Broncos, he helped Herrington and the York staff recruit graduating players to their university program.
Before the crash, the Lions were actively recruiting Conner Lukan and captain Logan Schatz — both of whom died in the April crash.
Kaleb Dahlgren, who survived the tragedy, signed with the university in May after hearing good things about the program from Cross.
“Mark recommended them to us as hockey players and more importantly as people,” Herrington said.
“There’s no higher reference we could get.”
Dahlgren will be with the team on their three-game tour through Saskatchewan, taking part in pre-game warmups and ceremonies.
However, he still hasn’t been cleared for contact by doctors because of a concussion and brain injury suffered in the crash and cannot play in the games.
The first game of the Mark Cross Humboldt Strong Remembrance Tour will be played Thursday evening against the Regina Cougars in Lumsden, where Cross played his youth hockey.
The Lumsden game will also serve as a host for his hometown of Strasbourg, located about 50 kilometres north.
On Friday the Lions will travel to Humboldt to play the Calgary Dinos at Elgar Petersen Arena, the home rink of the Broncos.
The tour will conclude with a matchup against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies Sunday — the last men’s hockey game at Rutherford Rink.