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The Four Broncos – The Story of the Tragic Bus Crash That Killed Four Hockey Players
It sent a deafening silence through the hockey world and beyond.
On December 30, 1986 at 3:45 PM, the unthinkable happened. Two days after Christmas break, the Western Hockey League Swift Current Broncos were making a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Regina, Saskatchewan when their team-owned bus, a 1968 Western Flyer, veered off a highway overpass, hitting a sign. Then slide down a dam nose first. It flew about 50 feet in the air, landing on its side when it stopped.
Four players died: Scott Kruger, Trent Kresse, Brent Ruff and Chris Mantica.
The scene was chaotic. Sleeping bags, blankets, pillows and personal belongings were scattered in the ditch. 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 for treatment.
The day before, temperatures were unseasonably warm – almost t-shirt weather, but weather advisories were 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, along with player Dan Lambert. Ryan McGill also missed the trip with tonsillitis.
The plan was to arrive at Regina’s rink by 6:45 to have the bus loaded and ready to go by 3:00 PM. However, Scotty Krueger forgot his dress clothes and was ordered to go home and get them. (Players often traveled in comfortable clothing then changed on the bus when they reached their destination.)
The bus was probably in need of repair. It still had the old green and blue when it served the Lethbridge, Alberta team. There was no bathroom on board, some windows were taped together, and the seats had tears and lots of stains.
Dave Archibald (who was acquitted of any negligence) pulled the bus over to turn onto the highway for an overpass, when it hit a patch of black ice. After that, there was a scene from a horror movie inside the bus.
One player, wearing shorts, a T-shirt and no shoes, falls and wakes up on top of another. The bus was next to him. Searching for his shoes, he went back to where he was sitting, lifted a torn seat and found the legs of a teammate, whose torso was buried under the bus. He then discovered another player, whose upper body was trapped under the bus by his legs – his arms reaching out for help as he died in front of him.
Kruger and Kress 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, both were second in team scoring behind Joe Sakic.
Sakik got down from the bus through the shattered windshield.
“I was sitting at the front of the bus. Sheldon Kennedy and I were probably talking about the Christmas holidays.”
Four players were playing a card game at the back of the bus. The coroner said they died of spinal cord injury.
The Regina game was canceled, as were three others.
“It was halfway through the year, so coming back into the season was tough,” added Sakic. “It was tough — back in the first game. After the season, we did really well. I think we finished second or third and got knocked out in the second round.
“It pulled the whole town closer together. Everyone, from day one, was so nice to all the players. It was our first year there. They tried to make us feel at home. Even then, they pulled together more.”
About 4,000 attended the January 4, 1987 service held at the Swift Current Centennial Civic Center. Players and officials from every division and WHL team were represented. Each player is buried in his hometown.
Tragically, the Krugers’ uncle, Hermann Kruger (67), suffered a fatal heart attack en route 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 and no psychological help.
Many players had a tough time. Some become reckless and run wild through the city, give up hockey, become depressed or repress their emotions. Everyone is obsessed with experience.
Joe Sakic kept it to himself. He rarely talks about it. “The best thing was practice and game time — that was the best time to escape. You just focused on hockey.
“A tragedy happened for the first time in my life. Reality checks. You’re a little more careful about the things you decide to do. You consider the options, I guess.”
The incident was the first fatal accident in WHL history but not the first stop call. Freezing rain caused a Kamloops Chiefs bus crash in the mid-1970s, and a Victoria Cougars bus overturned near Butte, Montana in 1980. Another bus carrying a group of Canadian Pacific Railway workers crashed near the Swift Current, killing 22. Years before the Bronco crash.
Thankfully, today, teams are more careful Calgary Hitmen public relations director and play-by-play man Brad Karl actually talked to a few drivers about it. “The weight of the bus has increased almost to the point where it’s practically impossible to skid off the highway. I think the way it’s crafted and structured, it hugs the highway.”
The party, for the most part, charters. Among the few teams that own buses, they are new models – 2000 plus and refurbished.
Since the Broncos incident, the Western Hockey League has emphasized safety. “If the road is not good, the games are cancelled,” adds Carl. “You don’t have to go through the snow anymore. Teams are willing to cancel games.”
#9 Scott Krueger: Centre, born March 31, 1967 in Swift Current, Saskatchewan… played one year with the Prince Albert Raiders… scored 19 goals, 37 assists for 56 points and 32 penalty minutes in 36 games.
#11 Brent Ruff: Left Wing, born Feb. 17, 1970 Warburg, Alberta … In rookie season, in 33 games, scored three goals, three assists for six points and two penalty minutes … Probably best shot was a pro contract
# 22 Chris Mantica: Left wing, born Nov. 9, 1967 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan … rookie season, three goals, two assists for five points and 101 penalty minutes … held the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League penalty record at 502 minutes. .. just returned from a 3-game suspension
# 8 Trent Cress: Lefty, born April 1, 1967 in Kindersley, Saskatchewan…married, played all-star caliber baseball for the Swift Current Indians…first year with Swift Current but second in WHL 30 games, 28 goals , 28 assists for 56 points and 27 penalty minutes
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