Bill Lee spearheads fundraising to create proper memorial for fallen hockey players
In a touching ceremony on Friday, a volunteer committee, led by Swift Current local Bill Lee, unveiled a memorial honoring the four hockey players who were killed in the Broncos bus crash, 30 years to the day after the accident.
The faces of Brent Ruff, Chris Mantyka, Scott Kruger, and Trent Kresse all adorn the four-leaf clover monument, now permanently housed at the site of the crash, five kilometers east of Swift Current, just off the Trans-Canada Highway.
Family members of each of the four players, along with some of their former teammates who survived the accident were among the dozens who attended the unveiling.
“Today was very special,” commented Randy Ruff, older brother of Brent.
“Can’t say enough words about it [the monument], and the tribute to the four players certainly brought back memories of ’86. I’m most certain that all families are very proud of what’s out on the highway today.”
“It certainly is a mixed bag of emotions, from tears to joy,” Ruff added. “But when events like this happen, you try and draw the good things from them, and there are a lot of good things about that monument today and the everlasting effect it will have on the community here and all the families going forward.”
The Ruff family is synonymous with hockey in Canada, having had four of the Ruff brothers play in the Western Hockey League – in fact, Randy is a former Lethbridge Broncos standout. Brent’s skills eclipsed those of his brothers’, Randy recounted.
“One of the things that I remember most about my brother is the fact that he never played Midget hockey, came right out of Bantam to play junior hockey, he was a very special and talented player. I think he might have been the best one of us [Ruff brothers]. So that was certainly maybe a career taken away from him, but he left us doing something that he wanted to do.”
Don Mantyka described his son Chris’s style of play as “rambunctious”, but his favorite memory is that Chris had what he called, “a soft side”.
The Mantyka family had a large contingent at the event, and Don said he had to struggle to keep his emotions in check as the large monument was unveiled.
“Caught my breath immediately. Yeah, I wasn’t expecting what it was going to be, but to see the four faces, it caught my breath. And you just have to sit back and evaluate things very quickly as to what’s transpiring at the time. So you take a few minutes and start taking grips with things.”
Mr. Mantyka was also grateful to the community of Swift Current for honoring the memory of his son. “Every Christmas it seems like, it’s ‘there’. As much as you want to spend Christmas with your family… it’s that presence still there. It’s an anniversary each and every year. It doesn’t go away. You think that sometimes it’s supposed to live its life out, but it doesn’t, the 20th anniversary was up, now the 30th… and it keeps coming up. And I appreciate it because the boys haven’t been forgotten. With Bill [Lee], the tremendous job he’s done, you can’t even explain, from our point of view, what it means, what this man has done. It’s tremendous.”
Lee, who championed the fundraising efforts to make the memorial a reality, was overcome with emotion at seeing the hard work of the volunteer committee come to fruition.
“The first person I saw [when the monument was unveiled] was my son and he looked over at me and I could see his eyes were just huge and I started to look around and I could see different people crying, I could see people smiling, and I knew that everybody was going to be so uplifted. This weight is finally gone, and I could see when I look back at the boys and I thought you know, like the sign says on the back, ‘You’re finally home’.”