The fans in section U

John and Helen Kerbrat ease into their seats a few minutes before the puck drops, though they've been at the arena for a while already, holding court at the top of Section U. They walk down to Row 7 and across to seats 8 and 9, their home at the Elgar Petersen Arena for the past 24 years.

It's a Wednesday night in early November and the Humboldt Broncos are taking on the Nipawin Hawks in front of a sparse crowd. Both teams are hovering around .500 early in the season and there's not much to suggest this will be a game to remember. Still, the Kerbrats are here, much as they have been hundreds and hundreds of times before.

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By almost all accounts they are the Broncos' most devoted fans. They saw their first game in 1967 and have visited every road arena with the exception of La Ronge. They most often drove themselves, but there were exceptions.

"One time we traveled on the team bus," John said. He finished approvingly: "We went out for a steak dinner and I didn't hear a single curse word on that bus."

The frequency of those road trips has dwindled as the Kerbrats have gotten older (John is 84 and Helen 83), but their interest in the game seems as strong as ever. Helen watches the game against Nipawin with a focus that belies her age.

She leans forward ever so slightly in her seat, hands clasped together, and rarely takes her eyes off the ice. When she does, it's usually to consult the program spread out on her lap, a convenient way to remind her of names, numbers and positions.

Helen is a hockey purist of the highest order. When a group of kids a few rows down start chanting, "Fight, fight!" after some rough stuff on the ice, she isn't very impressed.

"I like a good, clean hockey game," she said simply, as if the thought of any other kind of game was too much to bear.

Sitting next to his wife, John is an endless fountain of opinions, stories and thoughts. With a voice that still has hints of his French roots (his mother was from Quebec and his father from France), John alternates between commenting on the game in front of him and reaching back decades to talk about some of his favourite old-timers.

"Gordie Howe, he was the best I ever saw."

"I saw Mike Bossy score a goal into a hole this big," John said, holding his hands about six inches apart.

"Bobby Hull, he had the best shot I ever saw."

He goes on like this throughout most of the game, gesturing and pointing and laughing a rhythmic laugh that causes his shoulders to bounce up and down. John is a small man, maybe five-foot-six and, almost lost beneath an oversized black and purple jacket, he appears even smaller.

His knowledge of the game is almost encyclopedic, and the reasons for that are stacked on shelves and piled in boxes in the basement of his home on 14th Street in Humboldt.

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Two days after the game against Nipawin (the Broncos won 3-0), John is shoveling the driveway. He's going to turn 85 later this month but still likes to be active. He mentioned more than once how much he missed skating at the Uniplex before Broncos' practices; arthritis in his knees stopped that habit a few years back.

John and Helen's living room is a shrine to two things: their family and hockey. The walls are plastered with photos of their four children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild, Terrence, who's soon to turn one.

There's also a photo of John and Helen on their wedding day in 1954. Soon after that they moved to B.C., where John found work logging and the young couple lived for a time in a house floating on a lake, a photo of which hangs in their basement. They eventually moved back to Saskatchewan and farmed between Melfort and Humboldt for the better part of 50 years. The move to the house on 14th Street came in the early 1990s; it was time to step back from farming and indulge in that second great passion - hockey

In addition to the Broncos, John and Helen are Toronto Maple Leafs fans and, in this case, it's important to remember that "fan" is a shorter way of saying "fanatic". In a case in the corner of the living room is a small replica of the Stanley Cup from the last time the Leafs won it, in 1967. It's in the basement, though, that the degree of the Kerbrat's hockey fanaticism shines through. Along one wall there is a framed photo of Darryl Sittler and of Wendel Clark. There's also a pile of Humboldt Broncos memorabilia, clippings from this newspaper and team photos and programs. It's a time capsule, a look back at a team whose history isn't meticulously recorded. In fact, the Kerbrats are such big fans of the Broncos that they often travel to Drake and Lanigan to watch ex-Broncos play in men's leagues.

There are also boxes full of NHL record books from the 80s and 90s, but John pulls out one particularly special book. It's small and tattered, held together by little more than tape. Old newspaper clippings fall out as John leafs through the pages. The title is faded and hard to read, but it's a record book covering the NHL from 1917 to 1957.

"This record, it will never be broken," John said, pointing to the name Joe Malone. He was referring to Malone's 44 goals in 20 games during the 1917-18 season for the Montreal Canadiens. It's just one in an endless stream of facts, figures and opinions that John cheerfully spouts out when he starts talking about hockey.

Back upstairs, Helen comes into the kitchen with a photo album. There are pictures of their family inside, but there are also newspaper clippings and photos of the Broncos. John and Helen are the team's unofficial historians and it's a job they clearly love.

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The next time you're at the Elgar Petersen Arena for a Broncos game, show up a few minutes early. Walk over to the top of Section U and look for the short man with the shoulders hopping as he laughs. Look for the thin woman next to him with the program in her lap. It will be John and Helen Kerbrat. Walk down to the seventh row and you might even be able to pick up some of their conversation. Helen might be cheering on the goalie and John might be talking about Bobby Hull, but one thing's for sure: hockey will be on their minds.

© Copyright Humboldt Journal

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