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The Four Broncos – The Story of the Tragic Bus Crash That Killed Four Hockey Players
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’s 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 road avoid the highway, hitting a sign. then slide down an embankment nose first. He flew about 50 feet in the air, landing on his side when he skidded to a stop.
Four players had died: Scott Kruger, Trent Kresse, Brent Ruff, and Chris Mantyka.
The scene was chaotic. The trench was littered with sleeping bags, blankets, pillows and personal items. Two ambulances drove back and forth to Swift Current Union Hospital, and passing motorists were flagged down by police to help transport the less seriously injured to medical attention.
The day before, the temperature was unseasonably warm – almost t-shirt weather, but there was a weather advisory in effect at the time of the accident – cold conditions and a blizzard. 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 with tonsillitis.
The plan was to load the bus and be 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 to get them. (The players often traveled in comfortable clothes and then changed on the bus after reaching their destination.)
The bus itself was likely in need of repair. He still had the old green and blue when he served the Lethbridge, Alberta team. There was no bathroom on board, some of the windows were taped together, and the seats had tears and lots of stains.
Dave Archibald (who was cleared of any negligence) had just pulled the bus into the bend for the highway bypass, when it hit a patch of black ice. Following, inside the bus was a scene out of a horror film.
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. Looking for his shoes, he went back to where he was sitting, picked up a seat that had been torn away, and saw the legs of a teammate, whose torso was buried under 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. At the time, the two were tied for second place in scoring on the team, behind Joe Sakic.
Sakic got out of the bus by climbing through the shattered windshield.
“I was sitting at the front of the bus. Apparently Sheldon Kennedy and I were 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.
Regina’s game was cancelled, along with three others.
“It was halfway through the year, so it was difficult to come back into the season,” adds Sakic. “That was difficult – the first game back. The season after, we did very well. I think we finished second or third and got knocked out in the second round.
“It drew the whole city even closer. Everyone, 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 even more together.”
The Memorial Service
Nearly 4,000 attended the service held at the Swift Current Centennial Civic Center on January 4, 1987. All WHL divisions and teams were represented by players and officials. Each player was buried in his home town.
Unfortunately, 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 support.
Many players had a difficult time. Some became reckless and ran wild through town, gave up hockey, became depressed, or suppressed their emotions. The experience is distressing for everyone.
Joe Sakic kept it to himself. He rarely talks about it. “The best thing was during practices and games – that was the best time to get away. You were focused on hockey.
“It’s the first time a tragedy has happened in my life. Kind of a reality check in. You’re a bit more careful about the things you decide to do. You weigh the options, I guess .”
This incident was the first fatal accident 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 railway workers crashed and claimed 22 lives near Swift Current only six . years before the Bronco crash.
Fortunately, today, teams are taking more care. 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 almost impossible for it to slide off the highway. I guess the way it’s built and structured, it hugs the highway .”
Teams, for the most part, charter. Of the few teams that own buses, they are newer models – over 2000 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. “You don’t have to trudge through the snow anymore. Teams are more willing to cancel games.”
The Accident 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 February 17, 1970 in Warburg, Alberta … rookie season, in 33 games, scored three goals, three assists for six points and two penalty minutes … may have had the best shot at 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 minutes from the spot … had the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey record penalty game for 502 minutes. .. just returned from a 3 game suspension
#8 Trent Kresse: left wing, born April 1, 1967 in Kindersley, Saskatchewan … engaged to be married, played all-star 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
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