On December 30, 1986, the Swift Current Broncos packed themselves into their 1960s Western Flyer for a road trip scheduled to take them to Regina to play the Pats later that evening.
Leaving Swift Current shortly after 3 p.m., the team’s bus merged and suddenly hit black ice while traveling on Highway 1. The bus went airborne, flipped off the overpass and rolled into a ditch. Four players were killed in the crash.
Dan Lambert – named head coach of the Spokane Chiefs in June – was on the Broncos that season. But Lambert was on loan to another team for two of Swift Current’s road games, and was not on the bus at the time of the crash.
The news of the accident shocked the young defenseman, who was 16 years old at the time.
More than three decades later, Lambert still recalls that dark moment in his first season of junior hockey. To him, losing four teammates was like losing family.
“In junior, you move to a new city, you have an instant family in your teammates. And that’s who your best friends are. You’re family, really. You’re brothers,” Lambert said recently. “… To lose four of those teammates it really, well, I guess it hits home. It’s like, wow, we’re not invincible, because at that age you think nothing bad could ever happen to you. And just like that, you lose four teammates.”
The crash stirred the city of Swift Current and brought into question the future of the Western Hockey League team.
“There was a lot of questions, like, ‘Oh my gosh, do I even want to continue to play hockey?’ ” Lambert said. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt these feelings.”
But Lambert and his teammates decided to stay on the ice.
Lambert played four seasons for the Broncos and helped Swift Current eventually win its only Memorial Cup in team history in 1989. That year, he registered 102 points in 57 regular season games and was named the Most Valuable Player of the Memorial Cup tournament.
After juniors, Lambert eventually played in the NHL for the Quebec Nordiques (now Colorado Avalanche). He also played in the American Hockey League and the International Hockey League for several years before playing professionally in Germany for ten seasons.
After retiring in 2009, Lambert found himself back in the WHL, first as an assistant coach and later head coach of the Kelowna Rockets, and now as bench boss of the Chiefs.
Lambert spent the last two seasons in New York, coaching in the Buffalo Sabres organization. He initially served as the assistant coach for the Sabres during the 2015-16 season – an experience he says has made him focus on the finer details at the junior level.
“I think I’m much more detailed and probably a bit more of a nitpicker than I ever was,” Lambert said.
Lambert’s coaching style at the junior level is focused on two things: improving the basic movements and picking up the pace.
At this level, Lambert said his job is to help his young players perfect their skills in simple movements, like skating and passing.
“There’s one thing for sure – if you can’t pass, you cannot play at the next level,” Lambert said. “It is all about passing.”
And it’s all about how aggressive a player can be and how fast he can move the puck, which is what Lambert wants his Chiefs to be known for this year.
With the Chiefs already 2-0 following their season opening series at Prince George last weekend, it appears that the young team has already picked up on some of Lambert’s NHL-inspired coaching styles.
“As a whole … they’re starting to understand what we’re looking for,” he said.
It’s a step in the right direction for a team that is looking to redeem itself after missing out on the playoffs last season as the Chiefs fell to last place in the U.S. Division.
Lambert said his players and the fans might be keeping a watchful eye on the record again this year, but he’ll be more focused on developing players and improving his role as their head coach.
That role extends far beyond the ice. Unlike the mature players he coached on Buffalo’s rink, Lambert said he has to take on a more nurturing role at the junior level, especially when dealing with the youngest ones of the squad.
Lambert, of all people, knows that a team is like a family, particularly for those who have left home for the first time. He plans on taking on a much bigger role with his players this season, standing behind them no matter what their record might be and providing them with a sense of direction before they move on to the next level.
“At this age group you can really influence these young men. I think they look at you as not only a coach, but you know you need to be a role model, a father figure, at times a disciplinarian, and psychologist,” Lambert said.
“You have all these different hats that you truly have to wear and it is your responsibility as a coach to not only make them into better players, but to make them into better people as well.”
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