Memorial unveiled on 30th anniversary of crash that killed 4 Swift Current hockey players

On Dec. 30, 1986, four players from the WHL team Swift Current Broncos — Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Chris Mantyka and Brent Ruff — died in a highway crash in Saskatchewan.

Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Chris Mantyka, Brent Ruff died in bus accident on Dec. 30, 1986

A granite memorial in the shape of a clover was unveiled on Dec. 30, 2016, three decades after a bus crashed in Saskatchewan, killing four Swift Current Broncos players. (Simon Roberge/SRC)

Friday marks the 30th anniversary of one of the darkest days in Canadian hockey history.

On Dec. 30, 1986, four players from the WHL team the Swift Current Broncos — Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Chris Mantyka and Brent Ruff — died in a highway crash in Saskatchewan.

A memorial was unveiled at the site of the crash, about four kilometres east of Swift Current.

It's a two-metre-tall granite structure in the shape of a four-leaf clover. One player is featured in each segment of the clover.

The memorial also includes stories of the crash and a list of the survivors.
The memorial stone details the events of Dec. 30, 1986, when the Swift Current Broncos' bus crashed, killing four players. (Simon Roberge/SRC)

Red tape

It's a tribute long overdue for Bill Lee, who overcame many obstacles — such as land permit struggles — to see this day finally come to fruition. Lee, who is a close friend of the Kruger family, said "there was nothing ever done" in terms of a major commemoration after the accident.

"It just kept haunting me and spurring me on," Lee said.

The land the monument rests on was donated by the owner.

Lee said the Saskatchewan Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure would deny previous applications because the proposed location would be too close to a curve. At the time, Lee said he didn't quite understand the rules and regulations. 

"I was just being a very bullish, angry guy that wanted to get something done."

With the help of some friends and previous money raised, Lee was adamant the project had to be finished once the site was secured.

"I said 'that's it, I'm going to do it. I don't give a shit who's in my way,'" Lee said. "I was tired of waiting and I'm getting it done."

Lee said he would like some landscaping done in the future as well as the installation of security cameras.

'One of the worst decisions in hockey ever made'

"It really means a lot to us," Lee told CBC Radio's The Afternoon Edition. "I kind of grew up at the Kruger house for many, many years, spent a lot of days with all of those boys. Scotty was just one of the best people I've met in my life."

Bill Lee said he spent a lot of time with the Kruger family growing up. (CBC)

Lee said the fatal trip was one of the worst hockey decisions ever made. The trip should not have been made in a blizzard, he said.

"It pisses me off to this day."

Dianne Sletten, director of business operations for the Swift Current Broncos, said family members of the players approached her and mentioned how the memorial changes this day for them.

"It's not a day of mourning any more," she said. "It's a day of remembering and celebration." 

Sletten said riding the bus out to see the monument left her with an indescribable feeling. 

"It just kind of hits you."

For current Bronco players, who weren't alive when the incident took place, "it became real for them," Sletten said.

"Just getting off the bus, they were in awe of that statue and that monument."

There will also be a special remembrance ceremony before the Broncos game tonight against the Saskatoon Blades.

The ceremony will feature a video, families being recognized on the ice, a ceremonial puck drop and a moment of silence.

Fans will receive a commemorative four-leaf clover pin at what is expected to be a packed house.

Bus hit black ice on Trans-Canada Highway

Thirty years ago, the Broncos were travelling to Regina on the Trans-Canada Highway to play the Regina Pats. Just four kilometres outside of Swift Current, the team bus hit some black ice, skidded off an overpass, and rolled on its side.

Kresse, Kruger, Mantyka and Ruff died in the crash.

All four were later memorialized by the club, including having their jerseys retired in Swift Current.
The jersey numbers worn by the four players were retired after the crash. (CBC News)

The team played out the rest of the season, led by future NHLers Joe Sakic and Sheldon Kennedy.

To this day, the WHL awards the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy to the league's most valuable player.

With files from Peter Mills and the Afternoon Edition