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It sent a deafening silence throughout the hockey world and beyond.
On December 30, 1986 at 3:45 PM, the unthinkable happened. Two days after the Christmas break, the Western Hockey League Swift Current Broncos were embarking on a two and a half-hour drive to Regina, Saskatchewan when their team-owned bus, a 1968 Western Flyer, skidded off the highway overpass, hit a sign then slid down an embankment nose first. It flew approximately 50 feet in the air, landing on its side when it skidded to a halt.
Four players were dead: Scott Kruger, Trent Kresse, Brent Ruff, and Chris Mantyka.
The scene was chaotic. The ditch was strewn with sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, and personal items. Two ambulances drove back and forth to the Swift Current Union Hospital, and passing motorists were flagged down by police to help transport the less seriously injured for medical attention.
The day before, temperatures were unseasonably warm – almost t-shirt weather, but there was a weather advisory in effect at the time of the crash – cold and blizzard conditions. The club’s regular trainer, Gord Hahn, was in Winnipeg with Team Western, a pre-Olympic scouting program with player Dan Lambert. Ryan McGill also missed the trip due to a bout with tonsillitis.
The plan was to have the bus loaded and ready to go by 3:00 PM in order to arrive at the rink in Regina by 6:45. However, Scotty Kruger forgot his dress clothes and was ordered to go home and get them. (The players often traveled in comfortable clothes then changed on the bus when they reached their destination.)
The bus itself was likely in need of repair. It still had the old green and blue from when it served the Lethbridge, Alberta team. There was no bathroom on board, some of the windows were taped together, and the seats had tears and many stains.
Dave Archibald (who was cleared of any negligence) had just pulled the bus onto turn for the overpass onto the highway, when it hit a patch of black ice. In the aftermath, inside the bus was a scene out of a horror movie.
One of the players, wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and no shoes, was knocked out and woke up on top of another. The bus was on its side. In searching for his shoes, he went back to where he was sitting, lifted up a seat that had been torn off, and saw the legs of a teammate, whose torso had been buried underneath the bus. He then discovered another player, whose upper body was pinned inside with his legs under the bus – his arms reaching out for help as he died in front of him.
Kruger and Kresse played on the same line, had adjacent lockers, were friends and always together. They were found two feet apart from each other. At the time, the two were both were tied for second in team scoring, behind Joe Sakic.
Sakic got out of the bus by climbing through the shattered windshield.
“I was sitting at the front of the bus. Sheldon Kennedy and I were probably talking about the Christmas holidays we just had.”
The four players were playing a card game at the back of the bus. The coroner said they died of trauma to the spinal cord.
The Regina game was cancelled, as were three more.
“It was halfway through the year, so it was tough getting back into the season,” adds Sakic. “That was difficult – the first game back. The season after, we did real well. I think we finished second or third and got knocked out in the second round.
“It pulled the whole city even closer. Everybody, right from day one, was so good to all the players. It was our first year there. They tried to make us feel at home. Even after that, they pulled together even more.”
The Memorial Service
Close to 4,000 attended the service held at the Swift Current Centennial Civic Centre on January 4, 1987. Every division and WHL team was represented by players and officials. Each player was buried in his home town.
Sadly, the Krugers’ uncle, Herman Kruger (67), suffered a fatal heart attack on the way to the funeral.
In the next two seasons, the Broncos set several team and league records and won the Memorial Cup in 1988-89.
According to one of the parents, there was no insurance and no psychological help.
A lot of players had a difficult time. Some became reckless and ran wild through the town, quit hockey, were depressed, or suppressed their emotions. All remain haunted by the experience.
Joe Sakic kept it to himself. He will rarely talk about it. “The best thing was during practices and games – that was the best time to get away. You just focused on hockey.
“It was the first time a tragedy happened in my life. Kind of reality checks in. You’re a little more careful about the things you decide to do. You weigh the options, I guess.”
This incident was the first fatal crash in WHL history but not the first close call. Freezing rain caused the Kamloops Chiefs’ bus to crash in the mid-1970s and the Victoria Cougars’ bus to roll near Butte, Montana in 1980. Another bus carrying a group of Canadian Pacific rail workers crashed and claimed 22 lives near Swift Current just six years before the Bronco crash.
Fortunately, today, teams exercise more caution. Calgary Hitmen public relations director and play-by-play man Brad Curle has actually talked to a few drivers about it. “The weight of the bus has almost increased to the point where it’s virtually impossible for it to skid off the highway. I guess in the way it’s crafted and structured, it just hugs the highway.”
Teams, for the most part, charter. Of the few teams that own busses, they’re newer models – 2000 plus and refurbished.
Since the Bronco incident, the Western Hockey League has placed a strong emphasis on safety. “If the road is not good, games are cancelled,” adds Curle. “No longer do you absolutely have to trudge through the snow. Teams are more willing to cancel games.”
The Crash Victims
# 9 Scott Kruger: center, born March 31, 1967 in Swift Current, Saskatchewan … played one year with the Prince Albert Raiders … in 36 games, scored 19 goals, 37 assists for 56 points and 32 penalty minutes
# 11 Brent Ruff: left wing, born Feb 17, 1970 in Warburg, Alberta … rookie season, in 33 games, scored three goals, three assists for six points and two penalty minutes … might have had the best shot at a pro contract
# 22 Chris Mantyka: left wing, born November 9, 1967 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan … rookie season, three goals, two assists for five points and 101 penalty minutes … had the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League penalty record for 502 minutes … had just returned from a 3-game suspension
# 8 Trent Kresse: left wing, born April 1, 1967 in Kindersley, Saskatchewan … was engaged to be married, played all star caliber baseball for the Swift Current Indians … first year with Swift Current but second in WHL, in 30 games, scored 28 goals, 28 assists for 56 points and 27 penalty minutesWrite by phanmemgoc