John Morris Rankin, a member of Nova Scotia's world-famous Celtic group The Rankin Family, was killed Sunday when the truck he was driving to a hockey game plunged into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Three teenage passengers, including Rankin's son Michael, managed to escape, but police say rescuers couldn't reach his father in time. It took them several hours to recover his body from the frigid water off the coast of Cape Breton.

Investigators are not sure why the vehicle went off the 25-metre cliff, but there are reports Rankin swerved to try to avoid a pile of salt on the highway.

"I'm still stunned. It's a real tragedy," said one man in Rankin's tiny hometown of Mabou, N.S. "He was one of the bright lights."

"Everybody in the community knew him," said another. "A real stand-up fellow, straight-up guy. He was one of the local people who made it."

John Rankin, 40, played piano and fiddle with The Rankin Family. Fans say he was the quiet member of the Cape Breton band, but that his musical ability was unsurpassed.

He quit performing last year, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

Promoter Brookes Diamond worked with The Rankin Family on their early tours. He says John was a powerful force in the family as the band went on to sell millions of records and tour the world.

Diamond described him as "quiet, but smart, serious," and someone who "wanted to see the right thing done."

The five brothers and sisters began performing in Mabou, Nova Scotia, in 1989. They rocketed to fame soon after the release of their second recording, Fare Thee Well Love.

The band, which later shortened its name to The Rankins, sold more than two million records, and won five Juno Awards, including group of the year in 1994. They stopped performing together last September.

Jimmy Rankin left the Family Farm Tribute concert in Toronto Sunday as soon as he was notified of his brother's death.