Of tragedy and triumph

RAE CORELLI March 30 1987

Of tragedy and triumph

RAE CORELLI March 30 1987

This article originally appeared in the March 30, 1987 issue of Maclean's under the headline "Of Tragedy and Triumph." In 1997 Graham James, coach of the Swift Current Broncos, was convicted of sexually assaulting Sheldon Kennedy and other teenage players.  

The Bronco bus after the accident; on the ice against Regina’s Pats (right): ‘you never know what will happen tomorrow’

From the darkness of the parking lot filled with pickup trucks and mud-splattered cars, they come through the glass doors: big red-faced men in heavy boots, baseball caps and hunting jackets, their womenfolk similarly bundled against the cold of the south Saskatchewan plain. Joking and blinking in the bright fluorescent light of the Swift Current Centennial Civic Centre, they shuffle into the rink and clamber onto the orange, blue and yellow bench seats. The visiting Regina Pats come up the ramp from the dressing room and onto the ice to a chorus of loud boos.

Next up the ramp—greeted by thunderous cheers—are the Swift Current Broncos. If they win the game—and the Calgary Wranglers lose to the Blades in Saskatoon—the Broncos will make it to the Western Hockey League playoffs. But the Broncos have lost eight of nine games against Regina this season. The crowd stands solemnly while Beverley Switzer, the 38-year-old music teacher at O.M. Irwin junior high, sings 0 Canada. The boards around the rink carry signs advertising Big Red Equipment Ltd., Bert Legault’s Esso station, Trail Excavating and the Wheatland Mall. A whistle blast signals the opening faceoff. It is exactly 75 days since the nightmare.

Around midmoming last Dec. 30 in southwestern Saskatchewan, the temperature rose above freezing. It began to rain, and the snow that had fallen during the night turned to slush. The wind was gusting to 30 miles per hour. At 3:15 p.m. Dave Archibald parked the U5-passenger Western Flyer bus at the dressing-room entrance to the Swift Current Centennial Civic Centre. The Broncos major junior-hockey team, second-last in the Western Hockey League’s eight-team eastern division, slung their equipment into the luggage bays. Jostling each other good-naturedly, clutching magazines, soft-drink cans, junk food and spare clothing, they climbed into the bus for the 2U0 km trip to Regina and a game against the Pats. Archibald, a 48-year old heavy-duty mechanic for an oil-servicing company and one of the team’s three volunteer drivers, wheeled the big diesel bus north on Route U and east on the slush-covered Trans-Canada Highway. About a mile out of town there is a gentle climbing curve to the right, then a bridge, then a descending curve to the left. Coming down the curve off the bridge at more than 80 km an hour, while the players read or talked about Christmas, the bus began to slide sideways and Archibald lost control.

First period: noses running, hair behind helmet visors plastered to foreheads by sweat, Swift Current and Regina are in a bruising, scoreless tie. The crowd of 2,653 never stops yelling, groaning, cheering. Whenever play stops, music blares from the public address system. At 5:09 Bronco left-winger Todd Sceviour draws a penalty. He argues the call and gets a misconduct. “Hey, ref,” a voice yells amid the din, “you come on the Pats’ bus?” The public-address system plays Hava Nagila, an Israeli folksong, and clapping hands take up the rhythm. Hava nagila means “let us rejoice.” At 12:13 left-winger Peter Soberlak takes a pass near the goal crease and tips the puck in. The Broncos are ahead 1-0 and the roaring fans are on their feet.

Referee Doug Gunn, standing by the Pats’ goal, unaccountably falls down. The crowd cheers again. Less than four minutes later, Joe Sakic makes it 2-0 for Swift Current. The crowd is jubilant. A woman in a fur coat jumps up and down, squeezing the rubber bulb on a horn. At 15:54 a Regina player grabs the puck at the face-off and slides it past Bronco goalie Pat Nogier. “He wasn’t ready for that,” mutters Charlie Kennedy, a farmer who makes the 140-km round trip from Hodgeville to Swift Current for every game. “You know what they say about farmers,” says Charlie. “They’re only burying them two feet deep so they can still get their hand out.”

“Hold on!” yelled David Archibald. The bus, buffeted by the wind, slewed toward the shoulder and the three-foot ditch. It hit a roadside sign and both windshields shattered. The broken glass sprayed Joe Sakic and teammate Sheldon Kennedy, who were sitting in the front seats on the right side. Still travelling at more than 60 km an hour, the bus drifted sideways toward the ditch. Then the big front wheels crashed into the embankment of an intersecting side road. The impact lifted the 15-ton vehicle, and it flew through the air across the side road. Players were flung out of their seats and Archibald was pitched through the hole where the windshield had been. He grabbed the windshield pillar and hung on. The bus landed on its right rear corner in the ditch beyond, rolled onto its right side, smashing all the passenger windows, and slid another nine metres. In the stunned silence, 34-year-old coach and general manager Graham James, groggy from a blow on the head, his arm pinned between a seat-back and a window frame, asked if everyone was all right. Everyone was not all right.

Chris Mantyka

Second period: only 36 seconds after the puck is dropped, the Pats, on the power play, tie the game at 2-2. The cheers from a tiny band of Regina fans are overwhelmed by the groans. “Hodgeville,” says Charlie Kennedy, “has a population of 300, and they all seem to be here.”

Hodgeville roots for Swift Current. High drama at 7:22 when the Broncos are awarded a penalty shot. Joe Sakic takes the puck, speeds toward the net, veers to his right and fires at the corner. But Regina goalie Rob McKinley is not fooled and deflects the puck. Sakic is redeemed 30 seconds later when his shot bounces off the glass behind the goal, and Soberlak whacks the puck into the net. The goal gives the Broncos a 3-2 lead. The riding song of the U.S. 7th Cavalry booms from the PA. But the celebration is shortlived; at 9:43 the Pats tie the game 3-3. Then, with less than two minutes remaining, right-winger Tim Logan is penalized for fighting. “Hey, ref,” someone shouts, “you’re missing a good game!” There are 16 seconds left on the clock when Sakic scores, and the period ends with Swift Current leading 4-3. The Zamboni crawls into the rink to flood the ice. In the stands there is speculation about what it would be like to drive the machine. “Well, hell,” says a farmer, “it’s really just a tractor, and I’ve driven a lot of tractors.” His companion watches  the machine make a circuit of the rink and observes, “He can drive it alot straighter than most farmers.”

Blood running from a cut on the back of his head, team captain Kurt Lackten half-carried club public relations director John Foster, wincing in pain from a separated shoulder, through the empty windshield frame. Then Lackten crawled back inside to help his mates. On the highway, passing motorists stopped their cars and ran back to the wreck. Inside the overturned bus, Bronco players staggered to their feet, shouting each other's names. Feet crunching broken glass, a group of them wrenched away the seat that trapped Graham James's arm. “Everybody seemed to be moving around, ” Tim Tisdale later recalled.

Tisdale himself had been thrown violently across the aisle and had landed on Peter Soberlak. “Then, ” Tisdale said, “I looked back, behind me, and I couldn't see anybody except for an arm underneath the bus. It was still slightly moving, and I started yelling to get everybody out. ” Sheldon Kennedy left the bus through the windshield opening and walked around to the back. The bodies of Scott Kruger, 19, and Trent Kresse, 20, lay side by I side on the grass where they had been dragged, apparently by someone fearing a fire. The body of Brent Ruff, 16, lay beneath the bus. Chris Mantyka, 19, his lower body pinned by the bus, raised his arm and called, “Help!”

Then the arm fell. An off-duty Mountie asked Dave Archibald if he had a jack. Moments later he said he would not need it.

Doug Leavins, 27, a substitute trainer making his first trip with the team, tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Kresse and Kruger until he collapsed from the pain of a broken pelvis. The ambulances came. Four players were dead. In the rain, Graham James broke down and wept.

Scott Kruger: nightmare

Third period: at 4:49 a Bronco and a Pat draw penalties for tangling on the boards. The rink announcer says that, in Saskatoon, the Blades and Calgary’s Wranglers are tied 2-2, and the tension in the crowd rises a notch.

At 15:38 Regina ties the score 4-4. A minute and a half later, the puck is dumped into the Regina end. Rob McKinley, out of position in the Pats’ goal, and Bronco winger Todd Sceviour race for it. Sceviour gets there first, shoots, hits the goal post and takes the rebound into the corner.

Fighting off a Regina player, Sceviour whirls and passes back in front of the net. Tim Tisdale, speeding up the middle, tips the puck past McKinley, and the Broncos go ahead 5-4. The arena erupts with cheers. There is 2:13 left when Swift Current defenceman Ian Herbers is penalized for roughing, and there are anguished screams from the stands. The Regina power play, the best in the division, storms the Swift Current net. Broncos clear the puck. The Pats bore back in. The Broncos ride puck carriers into the corners, throw body checks and block shots by sprawling on the ice.

With 55 seconds remaining, the Pats pull their goalie and send out five forwards. The battle rages, but the Pats cannot score. With 13 seconds remaining, the penalty is over and Herbers is back on the ice. Then, with five seconds left, there is a face-off to one side of the Swift Current goal. The drop is not clean so they do it again. The Broncos clear the puck. “Five, four, three, two,” chants the crowd. The clock runs out. There is pandemonium as programs shower down onto the ice.

Order restored, there is a brief but poignant postgame ceremony. The Swift Current Broncos and a group of supporters donate a cheque for $2,500 to the fund established for Regina centre Brad Hornung, who crashed headfirst into the boards during a game against Moose Jaw on March 1 and is paralysed for life.

Trent Kresse

On Sunday, Jan. 4, at 1 p.m. a memorial service was held at the civic centre for Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Chris Mantyka and Brent Ruff. It drew nearly 4,000 people, a quarter of Swift Current's population. Rev. Ivor Vaughan, Rev. Roy Uffindell and Rev. Alfred Bouchard read from the Bible and led in prayer. Mayor Len Stein spoke, as did Graham James, John Rittinger, president of the Broncos hockey club, and Ed Chynoweth, president of the Western Hockey League. Organist Keith Miyashiro played and the people sang:

“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;

“The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;

"When other helpers fail, and comforts flee;

“Help of the helpless, oh abide with me.”

The Broncos announced that player numbers 8 (Kresse), 9 (Kruger), 11 (Ruff) and 22 (Mantyka) would be permanently retired. They also said that they were establishing a memorial fund to help pay for the education of their players. Most have part-time jobs to supplement the $120-$200 a month they earn playing hockey and travelling about 24,000 km a season by bus in pursuit of their dream: making it to the National Hockey League. At mid-March private and corporate donations had pushed the fund to $100,000.

On Jan. 9 the surviving Broncos returned from mourning and gathered at the civic centre for the 170-km trip to Moose Jaw to play the Warriors. “We debated asking Moose Jaw to play that game in Swift Current, ” said Graham James, “but we thought the best thing to do was get back on the bus and go do it. ” For that trip, they rode in a luxurious coach donated by P.A. Northern Bus Lines. Recalled James: “It was almost like an airplane, with individual speakers and jet streams for the air. ” The bus headed north on Route b, then east on the Trans-Canada Highway. As they passed the side road and the ditch, all heads turned, eyes fixed on the gouge in the earth. No one said a word.

The Broncos carrying Brent Ruff’s coffin at the funeral: brothers

Postgame: Saskatoon has beaten Calgary 5-3, and the Broncos, against the odds, have made it to the playoffs.

There are broad grins in the Bronco office just inside the civic centre doors. On the wall are the pennants of the 14 teams in the Western Hockey League—eight in the eastern division and six in the west—and a memorial plaque from the Moose Jaw Warriors to the four Broncos who died. Team president John Rittinger wears a Bronco cap, a black jacket, open-necked white shirt and grey slacks. A structural engineer, he heads the group that brought the Broncos back to Swift Current at the end of the 1986 season from Lethbridge, Alta., where the franchise had been since 1974.

Rittinger is reminiscing about the night in mid-December when the Broncos gathered in front of the Professional Building at Central Avenue and Cheadle Street to sing Christmas carols. He talks of Chris Mantyka, a 19-year-old from Saskatoon who had been billeted at his home. “He was the most popular player among the players,” said Rittinger. “Tremendously tough. He’d get up at 6 a.m., go pump gas, come home at 3 o’clock, clean up, spend three hours on the bus and get off and play hockey.” John Rittinger says he does not know anyone who had a New Year’s Eve party in Swift Current.

One sunny afternoon six weeks after the nightmare Dave Archibald talked about the accident. Seated in an office at Sage Well Services on the outskirts of Swift Current, he spoke haltingly in a voice filled with emotion: “When I turned the wheel, the bus didn't turn. It was the God-damnedest feeling I've ever had in my life. Did I blame myself? I don't know. I've asked myself that question so many, many times and I've never got a straight answer. I tried not to because I wanted to keep my sanity. I guess when any accident happens, there is the thought, you know, what could I have done to prevent it. Or could I have done anything? Who's got an answer?

“It was a hell of a feeling and it still is, you know. Sometimes. It’ll probably never go away. Not completely. Time, I guess, is a great healer, but it doesn't always heal everything. Would I drive the bus again? I think so—unless I'm asked not to. ”

On Feb. 26 the Swift Current Broncos took delivery of a 10-year-old 19-passenger MC-8 diesel bus for which they paid Beaver Bus Lines of Winnipeg $85,000. The citizens and merchants of Swift Current have donated $91,000 toward the cost of the bus and the charter fees the club had to pay before they got it. On Feb. 27 the Broncos left on a road trip to Saskatoon and Regina. Dave Archibald was driving.

Bronco Gord Green: the things that time cannot heal

Postgame: in the dressing room, rangy, hard-muscled prairie kids emerge from the showers, hair standing on end, grinning and towelling themselves down. A month ago Kurt Lackten was hit in the face by a puck that deflected off his skate and flew up under his visor. It took several stitches to close the gash between his nose and cheek, but now there is no sign of the injury. “They put Vitamin E on it,” he says. The black eye he got in a fight in the same game has faded. One by one, the players dress and leave, hair still damp; this is not hair-dryer country.

Next door to the dressing room, a reporter from radio station CKSW holds a microphone in front of Tim Tisdale, who is talking about his game-winning goal and trying not to grin. In the corridor outside, a group of 10-to-14-year olds, boys and adoring girls, hold up their programs to be autographed. Poker-faced, the players sign. In an adjoining office, Graham James, John Rittinger and assistant coach Lome Frey, 36, are trying to digest the reality: the Broncos are in the playoffs.

On a day in mid-February, several players have gathered in Graham James's office. “Before the accident,” says Sheldon Kennedy, “the guys were, well, we sort of had a group here and a group there. But now the guys just hang out with other guys.” Todd Sceviour said: “It makes you realize that every day is important to you. You are not invincible when you sit in that bus. Like now, when we're on the bus and we hit a bump err something, everybody's mind reverts to that day. It gets pretty hard to sleep when it's slippery or foggy. Not a day goes by that I  don’t think about those four guys. ” Said Kurt Lackten: “Before Christmas, I'd go out and whatever happened, happened. Now I go out and try to make things happen. I want to do it more, because you never know what's going to happen tomorrow. I've noticed that a few players who were cranky and stuff before are starting to get along with people. It has changed everybody. We are like brothers. ”

Postgame: the lights are out in the rink and all the fans have gone. The pickup trucks and the muddy cars have left for homes in Swift Current, Waldeck, Morse, Herbert and Hodgeville. Graham James walks along the concrete corridor toward his office. “We’ve had the nightmare,” he says. He glances briefly into the darkened runway that leads to the ice and walks on. “Now it’s time for the dream.”

— RAE CORELLI in Swift Current