Saturday, February 17, 2007

Bus Ride From Hell

It sent a deafening silence throughout the hockey world and beyond.

On December 30, 1986 at 3:45 PM, the unthinkable happened. Two days after the Christmas break, the Western Hockey League Swift Current Broncos were embarking on a two and a half-hour drive to Regina, Saskatchewan when their team-owned bus, a 1968 Western Flyer, skidded off the highway overpass, hit a sign then slid down an embankment nose first. It flew approximately 50 feet in the air, landing on its side when it skidded to a halt.

Four players were dead: Scott Kruger, Trent Kresse, Brent Ruff, and Chris Mantyka.

The scene was chaotic. The ditch was strewn with sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, and personal items. Two ambulances drove back and forth to the Swift Current Union Hospital, and passing motorists were flagged down by police to help transport the less seriously injured for medical attention.

The day before, temperatures were unseasonably warm – almost t-shirt weather, but there was a weather advisory in effect at the time of the crash – cold and blizzard conditions. The club’s regular trainer, Gord Hahn, was in Winnipeg with Team Western, a pre-Olympic scouting program with player Dan Lambert. Ryan McGill also missed the trip due to a bout with tonsillitis.

The plan was to have the bus loaded and ready to go by 3:00 PM in order to arrive at the rink in Regina by 6:45. However, Scotty Kruger forgot his dress clothes and was ordered to go home and get them. (The players often traveled in comfortable clothes then changed on the bus when they reached their destination.)

The bus itself was likely in need of repair. It still had the old green and blue from when it served the Lethbridge, Alberta team. There was no bathroom on board, some of the windows were taped together, and the seats had tears and many stains.

Dave Archibald (who was cleared of any negligence) had just pulled the bus onto turn for the overpass onto the highway, when it hit a patch of black ice. In the aftermath, inside the bus was a scene out of a horror movie.

One of the players, wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and no shoes, was knocked out and woke up on top of another. The bus was on its side. In searching for his shoes, he went back to where he was sitting, lifted up a seat that had been torn off, and saw the legs of a teammate, whose torso had been buried underneath the bus. He then discovered another player, whose upper body was pinned inside with his legs under the bus – his arms reaching out for help as he died in front of him.

Kruger and Kresse played on the same line, had adjacent lockers, were friends and always together. They were found two feet apart from each other. At the time, the two were both were tied for second in team scoring, behind Joe Sakic.

Sakic got out of the bus by climbing through the shattered windshield.

“I was sitting at the front of the bus. Sheldon Kennedy and I were probably talking about the Christmas holidays we just had.”

The four players were playing a card game at the back of the bus. The coroner said they died of trauma to the spinal cord.

The Regina game was cancelled, as were three more.

“It was halfway through the year, so it was tough getting back into the season,” adds Sakic. “That was difficult – the first game back. The season after, we did real well. I think we finished second or third and got knocked out in the second round.

“It pulled the whole city even closer. Everybody, right from day one, was so good to all the players. It was our first year there. They tried to make us feel at home. Even after that, they pulled together even more.”

The Memorial Service

Close to 4,000 attended the service held at the Swift Current Centennial Civic Centre on January 4, 1987. Every division and WHL team was represented by players and officials. Each player was buried in his home town.

Sadly, the Krugers’ uncle, Herman Kruger (67), suffered a fatal heart attack on the way to the funeral.

The Aftermath

In the next two seasons, the Broncos set several team and league records and won the Memorial Cup in 1988-89.

According to one of the parents, there was no insurance and no psychological help.

A lot of players had a difficult time. Some became reckless and ran wild through the town, quit hockey, were depressed, or suppressed their emotions. All remain haunted by the experience.

Joe Sakic kept it to himself. He will rarely talk about it. ”The best thing was during practices and games – that was the best time to get away. You just focused on hockey.

“It was the first time a tragedy happened in my life. Kind of reality checks in. You’re a little more careful about the things you decide to do. You weigh the options, I guess.”

This incident was the first fatal crash in WHL history but not the first close call. Freezing rain caused the Kamloops Chiefs’ bus to crash in the mid-1970s and the Victoria Cougars’ bus to roll near Butte, Montana in 1980. Another bus carrying a group of Canadian Pacific rail workers crashed and claimed 22 lives near Swift Current just six years before the Bronco crash.

Fortunately, today, teams exercise more caution. Calgary Hitmen public relations director and play-by-play man Brad Curle has actually talked to a few drivers about it. “The weight of the bus has almost increased to the point where it’s virtually impossible for it to skid off the highway. I guess in the way it’s crafted and structured, it just hugs the highway.”

Teams, for the most part, charter. Of the few teams that own busses, they’re newer models – 2000 plus and refurbished.

Since the Bronco incident, the Western Hockey League has placed a strong emphasis on safety. “If the road is not good, games are cancelled,” adds Curle. “No longer do you absolutely have to trudge through the snow. Teams are more willing to cancel games.”

The Crash Victims

# 9 Scott Kruger: center, born March 31, 1967 in Swift Current, Saskatchewan … played one year with the Prince Albert Raiders … in 36 games, scored 19 goals, 37 assists for 56 points and 32 penalty minutes

# 11 Brent Ruff: left wing, born Feb 17, 1970 in Warburg, Alberta … rookie season, in 33 games, scored three goals, three assists for six points and two penalty minutes … might have had the best shot at a pro contract

# 22 Chris Mantyka: left wing, born November 9, 1967 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan … rookie season, three goals, two assists for five points and 101 penalty minutes … had the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League penalty record for 502 minutes … had just returned from a 3-game suspension

# 8 Trent Kresse: left wing, born April 1, 1967 in Kindersley, Saskatchewan … was engaged to be married, played all star caliber baseball for the Swift Current Indians … first year with Swift Current but second in WHL, in 30 games, scored 28 goals, 28 assists for 56 points and 27 penalty minutes

Professional athletes turn to yoga for conditioning

(Published Jan/Feb 2007 Impact Magazine)

It’s been around for centuries, but all of a sudden, we’re hearing more about yoga. The new perception is no longer about it being just for women and house-moms taking a break out of their day. More elite athletes are integrating yoga into their training regimes.

Yoga is about experiencing the synergy of recruiting, stabilizing with the core, and going through a movement pattern, while combining breathing.

In contradiction, sport is very up and down. Your expectations are very high. It’s like you’ve lived a whole lifetime in one weekend.

So what is it about yoga that has attracted so much attention?

Calgary Flames Strength and Conditioning Coach Rick Hesketh says it’s more than the physical aspect to the training. “The range of motion, the core strength, the balance you get with doing yoga is outstanding.”

Yoga helps athletes learn how to use their breath to their advantage. “You can actually recover more efficiently,” adds Hesketh. “I know a lot of guys, who have practiced yoga on a regular basis and use the same breathing patterns when they’ve come off the ice and are sitting on the bench, recovering between shifts.”

For some of the Calgary Flames players, yoga was a chance to also try something different.

Star right winger Jarome Iginla tried yoga once a week during the summer. “More of the focus was on flexibility, but we also worked with the breathing. That was very helpful, just recognizing breathing, stuff that you’re not always thinking about for recovery, flexibility, and to relax. As athletes, we’re always trying to beat our bodies up and demand more and get stronger and faster.”

While his first experience with yoga didn’t leave much of an impression, Flames defenseman Roman Hamrlik is planning on returning to it after this season. “I talked to a few people back in Czech Republic and they say you should try yoga. But you have all kind of different yoga, so I took two lessons, and I was so stiff. I think most guys who are more flexible than me, they enjoy it more. They were really laughing at me – the whole gym.”

When a sport isolates and develops certain muscle groups, it’s essential to have some form of releasing them for overall physical health. Extra flexibility and core strength balance help recoup muscles properly.

Yoga instructor Christine Brown, owner of the studio om-sweet-om, once played basketball with the University of Toronto. “I used to be able to squat 225 pounds, but my inner thigh muscles were extremely weak. I had developed certain muscles and the other ones didn’t develop at all. It led to a lot of injuries, like ACL. In yoga, you develop muscles more evenly, which counters the selective development of muscles for a particular sport.”

Yoga postures can emulate the playing field movement. For example, in baseball, the lunge position is similar to the physical windup for throwing or pitching a ball. The exercise helps open the stance to create more power and torque.

Yoga can benefit every athlete. Those who practice it regularly seem to have fewer injuries. Being able to go through a range of motion, hold the position, be strong in those positions, and get out of them effectively is a real benefit to conditioning. You know you’ve worked hard to hold those positions and have balance at the same time.

Like Hamrlik mentioned above, there are many forms of yoga. To name a few, Hacha yoga blends aspects of the mind, body, physical, and spiritual, while primarily focusing on the physical exercises. Within that, there are different streams, like bikram. Astanga yoga is often called power yoga – a series of a flow of poses that is done very quickly, more like an aerobic exercise. Iyengar focuses on technique and alignment.

If you’ve never done yoga before, it might be wise to start with a gentler form, especially if there are past injuries involved.

You have to be careful and the practitioner teaching it needs to understand what your limitations are.

“Really, if you have an injury, it’s a pretty small part of your body that doesn’t work,” says Hesketh. “You need to find ways to work around it.”

An instructor has to be able to modify the poses for everybody, taking injuries into consideration. You want to be able to do the poses without hurting yourself.

So why is yoga so popular now?

Hesketh admits it may be that people in the fitness industry have concluded that perhaps something has been lacking. “We’ve done the gamut with aerobics classes, step classes, and every other class. As the general public ages, everyone’s looking for a more gentle way of training. That’s what brought it mainstream.” He sees that even ex-athletes taking it up for the first time.

Brown agrees that people haven’t been satisfied with their previous activities. “When I left basketball, I always thought I would maintain that level. When you get out of that, you really don’t have the drive and that goal.”

She tried all the classes but the novelty wore off. “They didn’t seem very fulfilling. I had a five-year attention span. I’ve been doing yoga for 10 years now and have no interest in stopping it. In fact, I’ve only become more into it. You can really have the opportunity to go deeper. I don’t see ever getting bored.”

One of the real benefits to yoga is the mental quietness and the relaxation you get. You quiet your breath. You’re able to quiet your mind, to focus and concentrate. According to Brown, “Somehow, it seems to eliminate the negative chatter that a lot of people have, including athletes.”

Yoga is a practice and a mindset. The more you practice, the better you get at it. It’s not a quick fix. It’s something you have to progress.

You can do it regardless of your fitness level, regardless of your weight, regardless of your injury, as long as you get the right instructor and the right class.

You can be an athlete for longer.