Twenty-five years ago today, the Swift Current Broncos went on the longest road trip in the history of major junior hockey. They were headed a couple of hours down the TransCanada Highway to Regina for a Dec. 30, 1986 Western League game against the Pats.
For four players, that road trip was their final journey in life. In some sad, solemn way, it was their lasting legacy. For the 22 others on that bus, that journey is still in session. It’s a lifelong road trip full of memories, reminders and slow-motion replays.
Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Chris Mantyka and Brent Ruff died when the Broncos bus hit a patch of black ice on an overpass, slid into a ditch, catapulted off an approach road and landed on its right side. The four hockey players, who were playing cards in the very back, were either thrown free or crushed by the bus. Coroner reports determined they died of spinal injuries.
There were significant injuries among the other players, team personnel and media that afternoon, but, as trite as it is to say, the season and life did go on. The Broncos emerged to win the Memorial Cup less than three years later. Joe Sakic continued to cut his teeth in the prairies and went on to have an NHL career that will land him in the Hockey Hall of Fame. And the team’s coach, Graham James, became the most despised man in Canadian hockey for a twisted story involving pedophilia that is still unfolding.
As a 23-year-old reporter for the Swift Current Sun at the time, I couldn’t have stumbled upon a larger minefield of stories in my second season as a journalist. I sat directly behind bus driver Dave Archibald and watched as he vainly tried to coax direction into an unresponsive steering wheel before yelling for the Bronco bus passengers to hang on. When the bus flipped, I landed on Sakic and Graham James sexual-abuse-victim Sheldon Kennedy. In the mad chaos of confusion, I exited from the shattered front windshield and saw through the freezing rain two lifeless bodies laying behind the bus. With just socks on my feet, it seemed to take forever to get to their sides. Upon realizing it was best friends Kresse and Kruger, the team’s two top scorers, my instinctive narrow-minded reaction that very second was, wow, those horrible-looking injuries will keep them sidelined a while.
Reality soon set in when assistant coach-GM Lorne Frey, Kruger’s uncle, arrived horror-stricken and tried to revive his nephew, then moments later intercepted his other nephew, goaltender Trevor Kruger, who emerged from the bus in search of his brother.
When it was clear both Kruger and Kresse were dead (as well as Mantyka and Ruff it was determined a short time later), motorists and ambulances took the players and other survivors to the hospital. While walking through the ditch, I stepped upon a set of car keys with bold letters ‘KARI’ on the key chain, knowing right away they belonged to Kresse, my closest acquaintance on the team. Kari was his lovely fiancee and her world changed in an instant – and she didn’t even know it yet.
There were no words spoken during my 10-minute ride back to Swift Current in the ambulance. I sat across from coach James, who was sobbing uncontrollably with his head in his hands while getting medical attention. The journalist in me had no questions. At the time, I respected James greatly as a coaching visionary and a well-educated and highly credentialed, articulate leader of young men. It seemed odd to see him this broken. How crazy is that sentiment today, with everything we’ve learned about him since?
Like the other passengers, there was no sleep that night for me. After leaving hospital, I returned to the newsroom and sat down in front of my typewriter. Twenty-five years later, almost to the hour, I’m doing the same thing in front of my MacBook Pro.
Lest we forget, Trent Kresse and Scott Kruger, best friends and inseparable on and off ice, even in death. It was the only thing fitting in a scene full of horror.
Lest we forget, Chris Mantyka, the team’s enforcer who won himself a job in the WHL playing with the heart of a lion. A friendlier interview subject I have not met since.
Lest we forget, Brent Ruff, who made the team as a 16-year-old after he was crafty enough to change the mind of coach James, who really wanted to send Lindy Ruff’s kid brother back for one more year at the development level.
Heroes emerged from the shattered bus wreckage that day 25 years ago. Among them was team captain Kurt Lackten, who embodied the spirit of a born leader. He spoke at the memorial service and was a model of mature composure unseen in any 19-year-old I had witnessed. I have great admiration for all the players who got back on a replacement bus and drove by that very accident scene for their first road trip in Moose Jaw just a few weeks later. I gained strength from you young men. I call it the blind bravery of youth.
Now, exactly 25 years after this unforgettable road trip, there’s something both serendipitous and eerie about flying at 37,000 feet and looking down over the city of Swift Current, Sask., while re-telling this story. On WestJet Flight 698 between Toronto and Calgary, I pay tribute to four fallen comrades and their brave Bronco teammates.