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Canada Lessons from Swift Current: Twenty-one years ago, Joe Sakic lost four teammates in a bus crash. Today, he breaks his silence to Roy MacGregor in hopes of helping those in Bathurst heal.

There is no memorial to mark where it happened on that windy, wintry day so long ago now - though the small yellow road sign with the red thermometer dipping below freezing and the fishtailing car says why it happened.

It is possible to stand on the very first turn in the Trans-Canada Highway heading east out of town and see, on a clear day when the snow isn't blowing, the welcome sign to little Swift Current: 'Where life makes sense.'

Too often, death makes none.

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They learned all about death here in Swift Current 21 years ago when the bus carrying the local heroes, the Broncos of the Western Hockey League, caught black ice and whipping wind in the wrong combination coming out of that very first curve, flew off the Trans-Canada and crashed, leaving four young hockey players lifeless.

And they learned it again 21 days ago when, four provinces and two time zones away, a van carrying the Phantoms, a high-school basketball team from Bathurst, N.B., slid in bad weather into a transport trailer, killing seven players and the coach's wife.

"It hit home, that's for sure," says Joe Sakic, the Broncos star who survived that long-ago crash and went on to a spectacular career with the Quebec Nordiques and the Colorado Avalanche of the National Hockey League.

Even today it is difficult for Sakic to talk about that moment, something he has only agreed to do with the thought that there might be lessons for the Bathurst players who survived and for little Bathurst, population 13,000, in what became of little Swift Current, population 16,000.

"Both small towns," says Sakic. "Both involved their teams. You never do forget. They say time heals, and it does, but you remember everything. You never forget."

Sakic can even recall the weather conditions that Dec. 30, 1986: temperature dropping to around freezing, the radio talking about high winds, storm concerns for the game that night in Regina, a 2½-hour ride away on the team's old Western Flyer.

Four of the guys had even arrived early - Scott Kruger and Trent Kresse, the scorers, Brent Ruff, the promising rookie, Chris Mantyka, the enforcer - and had claimed the prized card-playing seats at the very back of the bus.

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Sakic, a rookie at 17 and already the team's leading scorer, sat near the front with Sheldon Kennedy, his best friend and fellow billet at the busy McBean house in Swift Current. The third McBean billet, team captain Daniel Lambert, was off playing for the national junior team, the "C" taken over by popular Kurt Lackten, who was going with the McBeans' daughter, Karen.

The old bus pulled out of town and onto the Trans-Canada, rising quickly to pass over the railway tracks in a wide loop to the southeast.

Sakic felt the bus begin to slide as it went into the long turn, then he felt the wind punch it sideways. He heard volunteer driver Dave Archibald yell " Hold on" just as the bus flew off the rise into the bank of an access road and crumbled over onto its right side and slid through the snow.

The driver was thrown out the windshield and, miraculously, pushed to safety by the sliding bus. Sakic and Kennedy were shaken up but that was all.

"Neither of us was hurt," Sakic remembers. "We were both fine. We just walked out where the windshield had been."

As Sakic made it back up the embankment, cars and trucks were already stopping. He was placed in one of the first vehicles - he doesn't remember if it was a truck or a car - and hurried off to the little hospital in town. He didn't even know if anyone had been hurt. Kennedy, who had walked around to the back of the bus, knew otherwise.

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The four card players had taken the brunt of the blow. Kruger and Kresse had been thrown out the windows and killed instantly. Ruff, the 16-year-old rookie and younger brother of Lindy Ruff, then captain and now coach of the Buffalo Sabres, was crushed under the bus. Mantyka, the tough guy, was frantically trying to push clear of the weight of the bus that had trapped him. He called out for help, but help was impossible. His teammates had to stand there helplessly, watching their most popular player die.

Sakic was checked at the hospital and declared fine. It was only then that the others came streaming in and he heard what had happened.

"I couldn't believe it," he says. "I was in absolute shock."

Absolute shock - just as was felt three weeks ago in Bathurst when word came in about the van crash.

How, Sakic wondered, could he simply walk out without a scratch and be oblivious to the carnage behind him? He hadn't heard Mantyka's screams. He hadn't seen the trainer and a travelling reporter trying to resuscitate the players. He hadn't noticed the blood on so many of his other teammates.

"It was all sort of dreamlike," he remembers.

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And then, nightmare-like.

BUDDING STARS

Colleen McBean was the guidance counsellor at Swift Current Composite High School, but also surrogate mother to most of the team who came from other communities. Sakic, Kennedy and Lambert were all billeted at the McBean house. Her lawyer husband, Frank, was on the community-owned team's board of directors.

Frank McBean had been part of the group that had spearheaded a movement to get a team in town. Swift Current would be the smallest centre in all of major junior hockey and the doubters thought it too small to support such an enterprise, but McBean and others managed to land a franchise that would be moving from Lethbridge, Alta. They had the beginnings of a team; they hired a popular young coach, Graham James, who believed in fast, skilled hockey; and they had young budding stars like Sakic, Kennedy and the kid, 16-year-old Ruff.

To no one's surprise, the first-year team was struggling: by Christmas break an unlikely bet to make the postseason playoffs.

Dec. 30, 1986, had already been circled on Colleen McBean's calendar. She had a dental appointment in Regina. And since she was going there anyway, daughter Karen asked if she might come along and stay for the game. And if she was going to be allowed to watch her boyfriend Kurt play, then would it be all right if the girlfriends of Joe - Debbie, whom he would later marry - and Sheldon also came along?

McBean agreed and headed out with a full carload - a visiting nephew included - and they all met later at Regina's Cornwall Centre shopping mall for coffee. One of the girls came along looking ghostly: She had just heard a radio report in one of the stores that tonight's game between the Pats and the Broncos had been cancelled due to an accident. The girlfriends were frantic with worry.

"This was pre-cellphones," the now-retired teacher remembers, "so I had to go to a payphone. I reached Frank just as he was heading out for the hospital. 'It's bad,' he said, 'some of the boys have been killed.' "

Her first instinct, of course, was that it might be her boys - the billets. But then she realized it didn't matter who it was that had been killed, it was a horrible thing. They were all so young. So seemingly indestructible.

Just before Christmas she had had a long talk with the youngest, Brent Ruff, and heard how excited he was about going home to Warburg, Alta., for the holidays. He had beaten his early homesickness. "I love it here," he told her. "I'm so lucky. I'm playing more than I thought I would. Life is good."

"I never forgot that," McBean says 21 years later. " 'Life is good.' When he first came here and I saw he was so young I told his parents, 'Don't worry: We'll take good care of him.' " No one knew what to do. Should they head for home? Should they go to the Regina hospital where the more seriously hurt might be sent?

"In the end," she remembers, "we all just sat under the bank of payphones and cried."

They eventually made their way to the Regina home of a McBean relative and waited for the call and the list. Kresse... Kruger...Mantyka...Ruff... "The next few days are kind of a blur," McBean remembers.

She immediately put to use her grief training and her own personal experience. Only two summers earlier, Frank and Colleen McBean had lost their two young adolescent sons in a car accident near their country retreat. The boys weren't old enough to drive, and the lake friend at the wheel hadn't been responsible enough to take care. The car crashed, killing the two McBean boys and injuring others.

McBean kept her own emotions to herself and threw herself into working with students at the high school and with players who started hanging out at the McBean residence around the clock, endlessly talking about what had happened and why.

"Colleen helped," Sakic says. "She was definitely a big help to everyone."

However, the team coach, James, elected not to have psychological counselling for the players as a group, the feeling being that they could deal with this as all teams are supposed to deal with adversity: quietly, and by themselves. No one thought for a moment that he might have his own motives for keeping professional help at bay.

"The bus accident sent a great wave of emotion through the school," McBean says. "The shockwaves felt in this little community were immense."

Three weeks ago, when she heard the news coming out of New Brunswick, she felt it all over again.

"You just knew instantly," she says, "what they are going through."

A DEEP CONNECTION

Ryan Switzer's world fell apart that December day in 1986. He was nine years old when word came that disaster had struck the team he worshipped.

The Broncos meant everything to the hockey-mad youngster. He idolized Ruff - "He was like a rock star to me" - partly because of the nifty way Ruff played but also because he was youngest and therefore closest in age.

But the connection ran deeper still. The man Switzer considered his "adopted father" ran the public relations for the junior hockey club. His mother sang the anthem before the Broncos home games. Switzer's own dream was to grow up and go to work for the team.

It was vacation time and the Switzers had gone, as so many Prairie families do, to the West Edmonton Mall, the poor man's Disney World. He was staring into the dolphin tank when another family from Swift Current came along and passed on the news.

"That," says Switzer, now 30, "was my first experience with death. I just went silent. I didn't know at all how I should react. All the adults were breaking down and so I started to cry, too."

Switzer, who has lived all his life in town and did indeed grow up to work for the Broncos - he does colour analysis during the broadcasts - says that crash changed his town forever.

"Strange as this may sound," he says, "it was our 9/11. It became our city's identity. It changed people. Suddenly all the usual animosities in a town didn't seem so important. People seemed friendlier. It was like what you heard happened in New York City. The tragedy had the effect of bringing everyone together. New York changed forever after that. So did Swift Current."

The town staged a packed memorial at the hockey rink: mourners included jersey-clad players from the other teams in the league. They held Scott Kruger's funeral in town and sent off representatives to show a Swift Current presence at the other funerals.

And then they had to decide what to do. Carry on? Cancel the season? Fold the team?

"There was no talk of not going on," Sakic says. "You keep going. We talked, but it was about when do we want to start again? How long do we wait?"

Colleen McBean was anxious, for professional reasons, for them to get back to playing again as soon as possible. The fragile youngsters needed it.

"Difficult as it was for them," she says, "all of those kids kept getting up each morning and getting through the day. I think in hindsight that the fact that they made such an effort to get back on track was good for them. Their days were structured. They were busy.

"I know from our own experience that is what gets you through the day."

"The best thing for us was to get back on the ice," Sakic says. "Once you start playing again, for those few hours you can take your mind off it. You just focus on playing hockey."

They started talking about an appropriate memorial, and today the refurbished rink still features a special window in the lobby dedicated to the four players. "Unchanged forever," the window says. "What we keep in memory is ours."

First game back was an away game, against the arch-rival Moose Jaw Warriors, and the Broncos had something new on their jersey arms: a crest with the four lost numbers - 8, 9, 11, 22 - in a four-leaf clover that trainer Gord Hahn had stitched on.

"It was nice to put the uniform back on and just go out and play," Sakic says.

At Moose Jaw, the visiting Broncos were given a louder cheer than the home side. At every rink throughout the league it was the same: a long, emotional standing ovation to start each match, cheers of salute to end the games.

When they played at home, nearly 3,000 fans would pack into the tiny rink that is supposed to hold only 2,200.

"The rink was where we went for our healing," says Ben Wiebe, the current governor of the Broncos.

"It was pretty amazing," Sakic remembers.

Whatever it was that took hold of the budding 17-year-old rookie at this moment - the luck of the clover, a fierce determination to honour his teammates - Joe Sakic became a far more commanding player and, undeniably, the team's leader.

"He was 17," Colleen McBean recalls. "We had lost our two older star players. It just seemed like all the pressure shifted to him. Everyone knew he had the makings of a great player, but he stepped up in a way that no one could have imagined."

At the time of the accident, the Broncos were out of a playoff berth. There had been no high expectations for that first season in town. Yet Sakic, playing as if possessed, racked up 133 points as a rookie and carried the team into the postseason. He was named the Western League's Most Valuable Player and presented with a new trophy named in honour of the four downed Broncos.

The Little Team that Could had made the playoffs. They would go out in the first round, but they had still made the playoffs. With 10 minutes to go in the final game they would play that spring, not a fan in the stands was still sitting, the ovation continuing long after the buzzer had sounded.

"That was their goal," says Trent McCleary, who at the time was a budding 14-year-old allowed to practise with the team and who would ultimately serve as Broncos captain.

"That was their Stanley Cup."

"I will never be more proud of a group of kids anywhere," McBean says. "After what they had been through, it was such an amazing accomplishment."

Two years later, with Sakic now starring as a 19-year-old rookie with the Nordiques but with six of those original Broncos still in the lineup, they went all the way, winning the Memorial Cup in Saskatoon against the local hope, the Blades. Appropriately, it was the goaltending of Trevor Kruger, Scott's brother, that got them to overtime. And it was a shot from the point by Darren Kruger, another brother, that was tipped in for the victory by Tim Tisdale, who had been on the bus when it crashed.

When the winning goal went in at SaskPlace, Colleen McBean and her daughter Karen didn't even cheer. They threw their arms around each other, hugged and wept.

They were hardly alone. Ryan Switzer was now 12 and even more of a committed fan than he had been at nine.

"The crash was the first time I ever cried over grief," he says. "And then, when they won the Memorial Cup, it was the first time I ever cried out of happiness. Bronco hockey taught me emotion."

REMARKABLE JOURNEY

There has, in the past, been talk of a movie on the Broncos' remarkable journey from tragedy to triumph and, certainly, all the ingredients are there: the raw emotion, the determination to carry on, the amazing victory in the Memorial Cup, the admirable humility of Joe Sakic, the local boy, Tisdale, scoring the winning goal by tipping in a shot from the brother of one of the players who had died...

But the whole storyline is hardly so simple. While no one blamed Archibald for the accident, there were some feelings that they shouldn't even have set out in such conditions, though such risky travel is common experience in the Prairie winter. The Kresse and Mantyka families eventually tried to pursue a civil suit over the accident, but it turned out they were too late for any such claim and the idea was quietly dropped.

As for the coach who wanted nothing to do with psychological counselling for his team, Graham James was, in fact, hiding something. In 1996, a decade after the accident, James - by now part-owner, general manager and coach of the Calgary Hitmen - was charged with sexual assault against minors. Two players who would eventually testify against him had been Broncos, Sheldon Kennedy and another, unnamed player. James would plead guilty and be given a 42-month jail sentence.

An ESPN story last year by Canadian magazine writer Gare Joyce opened some old wounds in Swift Current when some of the people Joyce interviewed wondered how those close to the team could not have known what was happening. There had, after all, long been suspicion and innuendo concerning James and his manipulative hold on certain players.

Kennedy, who has gone through a very public and brave catharsis concerning the damage inflicted on him by his old coach - and who now runs a foundation dedicated to assisting abused children - thought he had been let down by certain people who may have felt winning hockey games was more important than losing innocence.

Trent McCleary, the former NHLer who served two years as team captain of the Broncos while James was still coaching, has often asked himself, "What would I have done?" if he had only known. But he did not know.

"I didn't see it," says McCleary, now a Swift Current investment dealer. "I just did not see it."

McCleary is hardly alone. Almost everyone else close to the team say they missed it, too. Some are haunted by their failure - perhaps not realizing that deception is the predator's greatest tool.

"Was there stuff going on?" McCleary says. "Yeah, plain and simple. Everyone has had to make their peace with that."

Some have; some have not.

When the 20th anniversary of the Swift Current tragedy was approaching a year ago, the board that controls the team held several discussions on what might be done to mark the occasion. Joe Arling, who served as chair, thought it should be humble, as befits the Canadian Prairie personality. They elected to go with a moment's silence before the home game against Medicine Hat that fell on the precise date, Dec. 30, 2006. Nothing else.

Some thought there might have been more but others, including Joe Sakic, thought simplicity the correct route. He could not have come anyway, being involved in NHL play - and, besides, he didn't need to be there.

"You never forget," he says. "So it's not just that one day you want to remember. You remember it every day."

McCleary thinks it should be remembered, and by more than the people of Swift Current.

"It's one of the most amazing hockey stories ever," he says. "A brand-new team, a small town, in the very first year four players are killed in a bus accident and the team continues on to win the Memorial Cup two years later.

"You look at the last 50 years in hockey - what's a better story than that?"

'THEY NEVER FORGET'

At the moment, little Bathurst, N.B., is one story: a highway crash that killed the coach's wife, 51-year-old Beth Lord, five 17-year-olds - Javier Acevedo, Codey Branch, Nathan Cleland, Justin Cormier, Daniel Hains - a 16-year-old, Nickolas Quinn, and 15-year-old Nicholas Kelly.

The rest of the story remains to be written.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who grew up playing street hockey in Swift Current with Scott Kruger, believes Bathurst can take comfort from the Swift Current story. Life has to go on. There is no other option.

"It's what happens in small communities from time to time," Wall says. "These two towns have a lot in common. We're places where everyone knows everyone else. And communities rally. They never forget, but they rally. They have to."

"It's tough," says Joe Sakic from his home in Colorado. "You can't believe what happened. You just don't believe it.

"It's tough to think about it and it's something you never forget. You want to overcome it all, but these are your friends. You can't forget. You don't want to forget.

"All you know for sure is that, in time, things will get better."

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