From Tragedy to Triumph: The story of the Swift Current Broncos

Looking back at Swift Current's 1989 Memorial Cup championship winning goal by Tim Tisdale, with Brian Sakic sitting on the doorstep looking for a potential rebound.

Tim Tisdale was never late for anything. He prided himself on it. Especially being on time for the team bus.

Well, he was almost never late.

There was one day he was just a little bit tardy – Dec. 30, 1986 — and it likely saved his life, though it was ultimately difficult to deal with that.

It’s a day that certainly changed his life. His and so many others.

Tisdale was a promising 18-year-old centre with the Swift Current Broncos, who had a Western Hockey League game that night in Regina.

Life was pretty good in Swift Current that winter. The town had gotten their Broncos back after a 12-year absence and everyone was mighty happy about that. There was a good feeling.

Until that day.

The weather wasn’t great that blustery afternoon, but it wasn’t unlike many other winter days on the Prairies. Thinking back, some questioned whether the trip should have been aborted. At the time, few really gave it much thought. The temperature was around freezing — there was a little freezing rain, some light snow and high winds.

A few minutes into the road trip, the first game back after the Christmas break, the Broncos’ bus hit a patch of black ice on an overpass on the Trans-Canada Highway. The bus at first slid, then rolled onto its side into a ditch.

The crash killed four players – Scott Kruger, Trent Kresse, Chris Mantyka and Brent Ruff. Two were thrown from the bus; two were crushed under it.

The four had been sitting at the back of the bus playing cards.

The four had been sitting in the seats where Tim Tisdale almost always sat – except for the day he was late for the bus.

“We’re all going to remember that day forever,” said Tisdale, who was born in Shaunavon, Sask., but grew up in Swift Current. “It was like any other day. We were excited to get back after the Christmas break, to get on the bus and play hockey again.

“I was late that day. I’m always on time. It was so out of character to be late that day and for whatever reason I was late getting on that bus. Ninety-nine per cent of the time I would have been in those seats.

“I was actually standing when the accident happened and sort of just grabbed onto things. But, yeah, it was difficult afterwards knowing that, you know, the only reason I wasn’t in that position is because I was late.”

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Despite the tragedy, Tisdale and the Broncos decided they would return to the ice and finish the season. They hoped it would be a distraction, and that they could stay together and support each other, and they could honour their friends in the process.

The memories of the accident haunted. The players were mostly left on their own to grieve and to heal because their coach, Graham James, wouldn’t allow counselling. No one knew the real reason why, but it was no doubt because another tragedy involving James was unfolding that would come to light a few years later.

“Devastation doesn’t really describe it,” recalled Tisdale of the accident. “For us to give up didn’t make a lot of sense. For us to not follow through would sort of be an insult. I think everyone knew we had to continue, for us and for them. We talked as a group to dedicate the rest of the season to them.”

So the Broncos played on. The first game back, just 10 days after the crash, was in Moose Jaw, which meant getting back on a bus.

“To get on the bus was extremely difficult,” said Tisdale. “Everyone was extremely quiet. It was a tough game to play. I think the warm-up was the toughest thing, to have the building full, all the cheering, we weren’t accustomed to that.”

“Getting back on the bus was torture,” said defenceman Bob Wilkie. “I remember skating around in warm-up and looking around, and there were several of us just crying. We could barely hold it together. Every day we had to relive [the crash, and] that made it tougher and tougher.”

“I honestly don’t remember if we won or not,” added Tisdale. “I don’t think it was important to us at that stage.”

To honour their four friends, the goal was to make the playoffs. It was a long shot, but they made it happen.

“We wanted to do something special for those guys,” said Tisdale.

And so they did.

But something even more special would happen two seasons later. In the spring of 1989, the Broncos won the Memorial Cup.

Five of the players (Tisdale, Wilkie, Sheldon Kennedy, Peter Soberlak and Trevor Kruger) and two of the coaches (James and assistant coach Lorne Frey, who was Kruger’s uncle) on that championship team were on that bus on Dec. 30, 1986.

The Broncos had an incredible 1988–89 season. They were the best junior team in Canada. They had a 55-16-1 regular-season record, losing just twice on home ice. They went a perfect 12-0 in the WHL playoffs to advance to the Memorial Cup in Saskatoon. A long layoff left them a little rusty entering the tournament, but they managed wins over Peterborough and Laval before losing to the host Saskatoon Blades. In the semi-finals, they defeated Peterborough again, setting up the first-ever matchup of two Saskatchewan teams in the final.

And it was Tisdale who scored the Memorial Cup–winning goal just 3:25 into overtime.

“The first thing after winning the Memorial Cup was thinking back about those four guys,” said Tisdale. “There wasn’t a lot of us left from [the crash]. But before the game we actually had brought it up, that we could do something special in the memory of those four guys.”

On Dec. 30, 1986, Tim Tisdale’s overtime goal could never have been imagined, that somehow from tragedy there could one day possibly be a triumph.

That Scott Kruger’s two brothers — goalie Trevor and defenceman Darren — were on the ice for Tisdale’s winning goal made it feel like karma had somehow guided them.

“Darren assisted on the goal. Bob Wilkie had the other assist. Darren, Bob and myself, all three guys had an attachment to the accident, there could be something to that,” said Tisdale. “I think winning, it was sort of an opportunity for everyone to heal…. To move on to a new chapter after the accident.”

Even so, for those five players who survived the crash and for Dan Lambert who wasn’t on the bus but was on the team, it was still very much a bittersweet victory.

And the healing is still going on today.

“There’s no doubt that I had some survivor’s guilt,” said Tisdale. “I had to talk through that with some people and understand that possibly there was a reason for me. Maybe that’s why I’m still so involved in the game and trying to give back as much as I can.”

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