It sent a deafening silence across the hockey world and beyond.
On December 30, 1986 at 3:45 p.m., the unthinkable happened. Two days after Christmas break, the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos were embarking on a 2 1/2-hour drive to Regina, Saskatchewan, when the bus owned by their team, a 1968 Western Flyer, skidded off the freeway overpass, struck a sign and then skidded off the top of an embankment. It flew approximately 50 feet in the air, landing on its side as it skidded to a stop.
Four players were dead: Scott Kruger, Trent Kresse, Brent Ruff and Chris Mantyka.
The scene was chaotic. The ditch was littered with sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, and personal items. Two ambulances drove to and from Swift Current Union Hospital, and police waved passing motorists to help transport the less seriously injured to medical attention.
The day before, temperatures were unusually warm, almost T-shirt weather, but a weather advisory was in effect at the time of the accident: cold and blizzard conditions. The club’s regular coach, 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 of tonsillitis.
The plan was to have the bus loaded and ready to go at 3:00 pm to arrive at the Regina track at 6:45. However, Scotty Kruger forgot her dress clothes and was ordered to go home to get her. (Players often traveled in comfortable clothing, then changed on the bus when they reached their destination.)
The bus itself probably needed repair. He still had the old green and blue from when he served the Lethbridge, Alberta team. There was no bathroom on board, some of the windows were taped up and the seats had tears and lots of stains.
Dave Archibald (who was cleared of any negligence) had just stopped the bus to turn onto the overpass onto the freeway, when he hit a piece of black ice. Later, inside the bus there was a scene from a horror movie.
One of the players, who was wearing shorts, a T-shirt and barefoot, was knocked out and woke up on top of another. The bus was on its side. As he searched for his shoes, he returned 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 under the bus. He then discovered another player, whose upper body was trapped inside with his legs under the bus, arms outstretched for help as he died in front of him.
Kruger and Kresse played on the same line, they had adjoining lockers, they were friends and always together. They were found two feet apart from each other. At the time, the two were tied for second in scoring on the team, behind Joe Sakic.
Sakic climbed out of the bus over the smashed windshield.
“I was sitting at the front of the bus. Sheldon Kennedy and I were probably talking about the Christmas vacation we just had.”
The four players were playing cards in the back of the bus. The coroner said they died of spinal cord trauma.
Regina’s game was called off, as were three others.
“It was the middle of the year, so it was hard to get back into the season,” adds Sakic. “That was tough: the first game back. The following season, we did very well. I think we finished second or third and we went out in the second round.”
“It brought the whole city closer together. Everybody 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 bonded even more.”
the memorial service
Nearly 4,000 attended the service held at the Swift Current Centennial Civic Center on January 4, 1987. Each WHL division and team was represented by players and officials. Each player was buried in his hometown.
Unfortunately, the Krugers’ uncle, Herman Kruger (67), suffered a fatal heart attack on the way to the funeral.
Over 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 or psychological help.
Many players had a hard time. Some became reckless and ran wild through town, gave up hockey, got depressed or bottled up their emotions. Everyone is haunted by the experience.
Joe Sakic kept it to himself. He will rarely talk about it. “The best 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. Reality registers. 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, claiming 22 lives near Swift Current just six years before the Bronco accident.
Fortunately, today, teams are exercising more caution. Calgary Hitmen PR director and play expert Brad Curle has spoken to a few hosts about it. “The weight of the bus has almost increased to the point where it’s virtually impossible to roll off the road. I guess the way it’s designed and structured, it just sticks to the road.”
Equipment, for the most part, charter. Of the few teams that own buses, they are newer models: 2000 more and refurbished.
Since the Bronco incident, the Western Hockey League has placed a strong emphasis on safety. “If the road is not good, the games are cancelled,” adds Curle. “You don’t have to walk through the snow anymore. Teams are more willing to cancel games.”
The victims of the accident
#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 winger, born February 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 chance of a professional contract
#22 Chris Mantyka: left winger, born November 9, 1967 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan…rookie season, three goals, two assists for five points, and 101 penalty minutes…held the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League record for penalties of 502 minutes…had just returned from a 3-game suspension
#8 Trent Kresse: left winger, born April 1, 1967 in Kindersley, Saskatchewan…was engaged to be married, played high 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 minutes