Thursday, 19 January 2012 09:08

Book honours tragedy and survival of 1986 Swift Current Broncos

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By Matthew Liebenberg — This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The tragic bus crash that claimed the lives of four young Swift Current Broncos hockey players 25 years ago and the team’s dramatic Memorial Cup victory only two-and-a-half years later will be remembered in a soon-to-be published book.



On Dec. 30, 1986 the bus slid off the highway only a few kilometres outside of Swift Current on the way to a game in Regina, killing Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Brent Ruff and Chris Mantyka.

Ten days later, the team returned to the ice in Moose Jaw to resume their season.

In 1989, the team won the coveted Memorial Cup with Graham James as general manager and head coach, who was named The Hockey News man of the year. In 1996, James was charged with sexual assault that related to his time as Broncos coach.

Sports journalist Gregg Drinnan, who is co-author of the book, described it as a phenomenal story that definitely must be told.

“I hope people admire these players after reading their stories and reading what they went through,” he said. “For goodness sakes, they were teenagers and had to deal with stuff that a lot of us will never have to deal with.”

Drinnan, who has been the sports editor at the Kamloops Daily News since 2000, has been writing about sports for almost 40 years. Previously he worked for 17 years at the Leader-Post in Regina, including 12 years as sports editor.

“I was quite familiar with what have happened,” he said. “ I knew a lot of the players and coaching staff and management, but really haven’t thought about doing a book until two-and-a-half years ago.”

In the summer of 2009 the two other co-authors approached him. Leesa Culp, now a resident of Toronto, was one of the few witnesses to the bus crash. Bob Wilkie, who now lives in Calgary, was on that bus when it crashed. He played three seasons with the Broncos.

“They had hooked up somehow and had this idea to write a book,” Drinnan recalled. “They had prepared something of a manuscript, although it was very rough and very short.”

Culp contacted well-known Globe and Mail columnist Roy MacGregor, who is a long-time acquaintance of Drinnan. MacGregor suggested they should contact him, because Drinnan was the assistant sports editor at the Leader-Post on the night when the bus crashed.

He did not agree immediately when Culp contacted him, because he was not sure how much time it would take to write.

“I didn’t want to go in half-hearted, I’m not the kind of person,” he said. “It’s been a long two-and-a-half years but it’s worth it. I met some good people and was reintroduced to a lot of good people, so it was definitely worthwhile.”

He only finalized the manuscript a week ago, in the early morning hours of Jan. 10. His deadline was the end of this month. The book, titled Sudden death: The incredible saga of the 1986 Swift Current Broncos, is scheduled for release in September by Dundurn Press.

“It’s not a trash book,” he said. “No one is getting trashed in it. It’s just a story of what these guys went through, how they survived.”

He and Culp interviewed about 30 people for the book. He received a positive response from people he approached.

“I think a lot of the players were glad to talk about it,” he said.

One of them was Kurt Lackten, who was the team captain at the time of the bus crash. He is now a commercial airline pilot flying for Hawaiian Airlines out of Honolulu.

“We talked for the longest time,” Drinnan said. “He just talked and talked and talked. It was that way with a lot of them. They seemed quite excited to see the book.”

He listened to many stories of how that fatal crash impacted on their lives.

Arty Fehr, then a 20-year-old overage goalkeeper from the Spokane Chiefs, had just joined the Broncos. He returned home to Nipawin the following day after seeing the wrecked bus in a quonset when he went there with the RCMP to retrieve his jacket.

“It was his way of dealing with it,” Drinnan said. “He had a knee injury, so he had to drive with his left foot on the accelerator because his right knee was really sore and really bothering (him).”

The players received no counseling after the crash. Drinnan said this decision by Graham James was probably because he did not want anyone to become aware of his abusive behaviour towards some of the players.

“I had one player telling me that basically the players just self-medicated,” Drinnan mentioned.

“The night of the accident some of them overnighted in hospital, not very many, and most of the others ended up in somebody’s basement, drinking beer and hashing over what had happened.”

Although the players did not talk openly about it over the next two years, the death of their four team mates motivated them to win the Memorial Cup in 1989.

“They were afraid if they lost it would be like shaming the memory, like they have failed their dead teammates,” he said.

After their victory they started to talk more freely about how their four teammates were with them and how they won the trophy for them.

For Drinnan the most difficult part of the book was dealing with convicted sex offender Graham James. The three chapters referring to the former Broncos coach were the final ones he wrote.

“I was searching for a way to approach it,” he said. “I didn’t want to sensationalize it, but at the same time you couldn’t ignore it because he was a big part of the story. … Even though the spectre was there, I didn’t want it taking over.”

James’s name also came up during interviews with players, who highlighted his dark nature.

“Almost to a man they feel he was a really good hockey coach, but that he was manipulative,” Drinnan said. “He was an angry individual, he only got angrier after the bus accident.”

The book’s publication date is still a few months away, but interest in it is already starting to grow. Drinnan has done a number of media interviews and the publisher has been surprised by that.

“I don’t think they realized that once word got out that there would be this amount of interest this early,” he said. “It’s still a big story. Hockey people certainly remember it and for a lot of people it was one of those ‘where were you when you heard about it moments.’”


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