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The Four Broncos – The Story of the Tragic Bus Crash That Killed Four Hockey Players
It sounded a deafening silence throughout the hockey world and beyond.
At 3:45 pm on December 30, 1986, the unthinkable happened. Two days after the Christmas break, the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League began their two-and-a-half-hour drive to Regina, Saskatchewan, when a 1968 Western Flyer bus owned by their team pulled off the highway Sliding out on the overpass, hit a sign and then slid down the embankment nose first. It flew about 50 feet in the air and landed on its side when taxiing to a stop.
Four players died: Scott Kruger, Trent Kresse, Brent Ruff and Chris Mantyka.
The scene was chaotic. Sleeping bags, blankets, pillows and personal items were strewn in the ditch. As two ambulances drove back and forth to Swift Current Union Hospital, passing drivers were stopped by police to help transport the less seriously injured to medical treatment.
The day before, temperatures had been unseasonably warm – almost T-shirt weather, but there was a valid weather advice at the time of the crash – cold and blizzard conditions. The club’s regular coach, Gord Hahn, is in Winnipeg for Team Western, a pre-Olympic scouting program with player Dan Lambert. Ryan McGill also missed the trip with tonsillitis.
The plan is to have the bus loaded and ready to go by 3:00 pm so that it gets to Regina’s ice rink by 6:45 pm. However, Scotty Kruger forgot his gown and was ordered to go home to get it. (Players often travel in comfortable clothes, then change on the bus when they arrive at their destination.)
The bus itself may need repairs. It still has the old greens and blues from when it served Lethbridge, Alberta. There are no bathrooms on board, some windows are taped together, the seats have cracks and many stains.
Dave Archibald (who was not negligent in any way) had just turned the bus around the turn at the overpass and onto the highway when it hit a patch of black ice. Afterwards, scenes from horror movies appeared inside the bus.
One of the players, wearing shorts, a T-shirt and no shoes, was knocked out and woke up on top of another player. The bus is on its side. While searching for his shoes, he went back to where he was sitting, lifted a ripped seat and saw the legs of a teammate, whose torso was buried under the bus. Then he found another player, with his upper body immobilized inside and his legs under the bus – his arms stretched out for help as he died in front of him.
Kruger and Kresse play on the same line, have adjacent lockers, are friends and are always together. They were found two feet apart from each other. At the time, the pair were tied for second on the team in scoring behind Joe Sakic.
Sakic climbed over the shattered windshield and got out of the car.
“I was sitting in the front row of the bus. Sheldon Kennedy and I were probably talking about the Christmas break we just had.”
Four players play a game of poker in the back of a bus. The coroner said they died from spinal cord injuries.
The Regina game was called off, as were three other races.
“It’s halfway through the year, so it’s hard to get back into the season,” Sakic added. “It was difficult – the first game came back. The season after that we did really well. I think we finished second or third but got knocked out in the second round.
“It brought the whole city closer. From day one everyone was so nice to all the players. That was our first year there. They tried to make us feel at home. Even after that , they are more united.”
On January 4, 1987, nearly 4,000 people attended a ceremony at the Swift Current Centennial Civic Center. Each division and WHL team is represented by players and officials. Every player is buried in his hometown.
Tragically, the Krugers’ uncle Hermann Kruger (67) suffered a heart attack and died on the way to the funeral.
Over the next two seasons, the Broncos set multiple franchise 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 are having a hard time. Some become reckless, run wild around town, quit hockey, get depressed or suppress their emotions. All are haunted by the experience.
Joe Sakic kept it to himself. He rarely talks about it. “The best thing is during practices and games — that’s the best time to go away. You just focus on hockey.
“It’s the first tragedy in my life. It’s kind of realistic. You’re more careful about what you decide to do. I guess you weighed the options.”
The incident was the first fatal crash in WHL history, but not the first near miss. Freezing rain caused the Kamloops Chiefs bus to crash in the mid-1970s, and the Victoria Cougars bus rolled over near Butte, Montana in 1980. Another bus carrying a group of Canadian Pacific Railway workers crashed near Swift Current, killing 22 people, only six in the years before the Bronco accident.
Fortunately, today, the team is more cautious. Brad Cole, the Calgary Killer’s director of public relations and co-star, has actually spoken to several drivers about it. “The weight of the bus increases almost to the point where it’s almost impossible to roll off the highway. I guess the way it’s made and structured, it just hugs the highway.”
In most cases, the team is the charter. Of the few fleets with buses, they are the newer models – 2000+ and refurbished.
Since the Bronco incident, the Western Hockey League has taken safety very seriously. “If the road conditions are bad, the race will be cancelled,” Curle added. “You no longer have to trek through the snow. Teams prefer to call games off.”
car accident victim
#9 Scott Kruger: Center, born March 31, 1967 in Swift Current, Saskatchewan…Played a year with the Prince Albert Raiders… 19 goals, 37 assists, 56 points and 32 free throw minutes in 36 games
#11 Brent Ruff: Left wing, born Feb. 17, 1970 in Warburg, Alberta…Rookie season, 3 goals, 3 assists, 6 points and 2 free throw minutes in 33 games… …probably the best-shot professional contract
#22 Chris Mantyka: Left wing, born Nov. 9, 1967 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan…Rookie season, 3 goals, 2 assists, 5 points and 101 free throw minutes…Has Saskatchewan Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League free throw record 502 minutes. .. just returned from a 3 game suspension
#8 Trent Kresse: Left, born April 1, 1967 in Kindersley, Saskatchewan… engaged to married, played All-Star level baseball for Swift Current Indians… First year at Swift Current, but ranked second in the WHL, scored 28 goals, 28 assists, 56 points and 27 penalties in 30 games
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