December 9, 2023

Rob Vanstone: Dec. 9, 1956 air tragedy “galvanized” fan’s love of the Roughriders

Precisely 67 years have elapsed since a devastating day in Saskatchewan Roughriders history but, for Ron Basky, it still feels like the shocking news about Trans-Canada Air Lines Flight 810 arrived mere minutes ago. 

Early in the evening of Dec. 9, 1956, 62 people — including four Roughriders players — were aboard an eastbound North Star aircraft that crashed into Mount Slesse, near Chilliwack, B.C.  

“I remember clearly how it impacted me,” Basky says of what was then the worst aviation disaster in Canadian history. 

“There were the news reports of the lost plane and the uncertainty of whether there were survivors if the plane had indeed crashed. There was always that glimmer of hope. 

“But as the day following the crash wore on, I had to come to the realization that, indeed, the people on board were all killed. 

“Even though I had never personally met any of the Roughrider players, the mere fact that I had watched them play at Taylor Field just before the tragedy was almost inconceivable.” 

Basky was 18 when he moved to Regina from his hometown of Kipling in the autumn of 1956. 

“I was just beginning to follow the Roughriders,” he says from his home in Saskatoon. 

This event, for an unexplainable reason, galvanized my lifelong love of my beloved Roughriders.” 

The accident claimed the lives of Roughriders players Mel Becket, Mario DeMarco, Gordon Sturtridge and Ray Syrnyk. 

Sturtridge’s wife (Mildred), a Roughriders director (Harold McElroy) and a Winnipeg Blue Bombers player (Calvin Jones) were also killed. 

They were returning from Vancouver, where the East-West Shrine All-Star Game had been played the previous day. 

Sturtridge and Becket had participated in the game, along with Roughriders teammates Frank Tripucka, Reg Whitehouse, Ken Carpenter, John Wozniak, Larry Isbell, Harry Lampman and Martin Ruby. 

Syrnyk and DeMarco were among the spectators at Empire Stadium, where two touchdown passes by Tripucka and five converts from Whitehouse helped the West defeat the East 35-0. 

The next day, Tripucka flew from Vancouver to Toronto before making a connection to New York. 

The star quarterback had pondered the notion of returning to Regina after the all-star game, but he opted for an alternate travel plan.  

He wanted to be reunited with his wife and children as soon as possible after a long and gruelling football season that had been extended by an all-star contest, which was played two weeks after the Grey Cup Game. 

“I started missing them so, rather than go back to Regina, I said, ‘I’m going to go home,’ ” Tripucka told me over the telephone from Woodland Park, N.J., in 2006. 

“I said goodbye to those guys at the airport and they got on the plane to go back to Regina.” 

While Tripucka was airborne and on his long journey home, word began to circulate about a missing plane. 

At home in New Jersey, Randy Tripucka answered the phone and was told that her husband had been aboard Flight 810. 

“A reporter called me and said something and realized that I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Mrs. Tripucka said. “He fudged it over so well that I didn’t think anything of it. 

“I said, ‘No, he’s coming home.’ Maybe a couple of hours later, someone else called because he landed in New York.” 

As upset as Frank Tripucka was over the loss of his friends and teammates, there was also a sense of relief. He could have been on Flight 810.
“I was lucky, let’s put it that way,” Tripucka said during our interview, five years before he passed away. “God was good to me.” 

Whitehouse was also spared. He had taken an earlier flight out of Vancouver. 

The initial itinerary had called for the Roughriders’ lineman/placekicker to make the trip to and from B.C. with his wife, Joanne. 

A sudden premonition changed everything.  

The morning that the couple was to head to the airport and depart for B.C., Reg abruptly cancelled Joanne’s plane ticket. 

“I said, ‘I’ve got a funny feeling about this. I’d rather you not come,’ ” Whitehouse recalled in 2006. 

He flew out to B.C. on his own and boarded an early-morning return flight the day after the game. 

Regina’s Paul Dojack was also supposed to be on Flight 810, only to cancel his reservation. The future Hall of Fame referee instead visited his sister, who resided in Seattle. 

A change of plans also saved the life of Tom Drope. Then the president of the Regina Rams junior football team, Drope — a successful realtor and a future Roughriders director — was originally booked on 810 before changing his flight plans. 

A story on Drope appeared on the front page of the Dec. 10, 1956 edition of the Regina Leader-Post, which included banner headlines: 



“For a day or two, you thought, ‘Well, they’ve crashed on a mountain. They’ll find it. Maybe there’s a lot of people alive,’ ” Sandy Archer, the Roughriders’ trainer from 1951 to 1980, said in 2006. 

Everyone’s worst fears were soon confirmed. The days and weeks that followed were excruciating. 

The Sturtridges’ three children — Valerie, 6, Vicki, 5, and 15-month-old Gordon — had been left with a babysitter when their parents travelled to Vancouver. 

The morning after the crash, the babysitter contacted Roughriders defensive lineman Ron Atchison, whose responsibility it became to inform the Sturtridges’ children that their parents were missing. 

“It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Atchison told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix in 1987. 

As one who was new to Regina in 1956, Basky recalls a city in shock. 

“I’m sure my work during those days was affected,” says Basky, who in 1956 began what would be a 30-year association with Sherwood Co-op. 

In the aftermath of the accident, Basky developed a greater appreciation for the Roughriders and the city in which they are based. 

“I met the love of my life, Sheilagh, in Regina and we were married in 1960,” he says. 

The couple subsequently relocated to Estevan, Moose Jaw and Red Deer before settling in Saskatoon in 1969. 

“I have been an avid fan of the Riders and have been a season-ticket holder for the past 25 years,” he says. 

“Because many of the home games happen during our annual vacation to Waskesiu, I have been known to travel by myself from Waskesiu to the game and arrive back at our trailer in the wee hours of the morning. 

“By far, the most enjoyable trips to the games have involved spending time with my son, Greg, and cherishing the times that we spend together. I buy the tickets and he does the driving.” 

Ron and Greg Basky watch the games from Section 112, on the west side of Mosaic Stadium.  

On the upper level of the east side, the surnames and long-retired numbers of Becket (40), DeMarco (55), Syrnyk (56) and Sturtridge (73) are prominently displayed. 

“They’re directly across from us,” Ron Basky notes. “Often, to those sitting nearby, I will point out the significance of the names and why the names are there. Most don’t know the story behind the names.” 

Syrnyk, just 22, was the youngest of the four Roughriders players who were killed. From Saskatoon, the two-way lineman played in 21 games with the Roughriders over three seasons. He was a captain with the 1953 Saskatoon Hilltops team that won a national junior title. 

Sturtridge, from Winnipeg, played on Saskatchewan’s defensive line from 1953 — when he was named the Western Interprovincial Football Union’s top rookie — to 1956. A West All-Star in 1955, he was 27 at the time of the accident. 

DeMarco, a guard from Boonton, N.J., made the All-Star team as a second-year Roughrider in 1954. He debuted in pro football with the NFL’s Detroit Lions in 1949 before joining Edmonton in 1951 and making the All-Star team in back-to-back seasons. His life was cut short at 32. 

Like DeMarco, Becket was born in the United States — he hailed from Chicago — and spent four seasons with Saskatchewan. At 27, he was named the West’s All-Star centre in 1956. 

Since 1957, an outstanding lineman in the West has been presented with the DeMarco-Becket Memorial Trophy.