THE TRAIL SMOKE EATERS- 1961 WORLD HOCKEY CHAMPS
Imagine a band leader wearing a long cotton-string mop on his head, dressed as a woman, wielding a baton, and leading the march of underwear-clad musicians around a hockey rink. Behind him, Robert Bertuzzi bangs on the biggest drum you ever saw:
“BOOM. BOOM. BOOM BOOM BOOM!”
The musicians blow their brass instruments; the fans are on fire:
“Put on your Smokie sweater
There is none better
And we’ll beat Spokane any day.
With our sticks of hickory
We will skate to victory
In the good old Smokie way!!”
We belted out that song at the top of our lungs with great vigor as we followed Al Tognotti’s Underwear Band around the perimeter of the Trail Memorial Centre hockey rink. With orange and black jerseys and the team crest brandishing smoke stacks with smoke coming out of them, those fast moving skaters entertained us for years.
The team was part of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) and played against the Spokane Flyers (later the Spokane Jets)—our rivals from across the line. Hockey was THE winter sport in these parts and the arena was always jammed with fans.
Trail’s world renown team of the 1930s and 1950s-60s kept this tiny town alive.
To qualify for the World Ice Hockey Championships, the team needed to win the Canadian Allan Cup the year before. In 1938, the Trail Smoke Eaters did just that. They went on to win 8 straight games in the 1939 World Championship Tournament in Zurich, and were only scored on once!!! It’s a riveting story on Wikipedia.
In 1960, our Smoke Eaters did not win the Allan Cup. We lost to the Chatham Maroons, backed by our very own goalie of NHL fame, Cesare Maniago. But Chatham was unable to attend the World Championships due to lack of funding and so Trail got the nod. Fortunately, the town raised money for the trip and Cominco took care of all the salaries. Eight members of the team were born and raised in Trail…As Dave Rusnell, one of the surviving teammates and now 87, said: “they could have played minor pro for anyone, they were so good, but they had well paying jobs at Cominco and so they stayed in Trail.” The Smokies brought in Dave Rusnell from Wadena, Saskatchewan in October of 1960. ”Best move I ever made.” He is still here….61 years later.
The Trail Smoke Eaters left for Europe in January, 1961 and played 18 exhibition games in several countries: Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Finland, East and West Germany, Cortina, Italy and 3 in Moscow–all prior to the 7 Championship games in Geneva. They were coached by Smokie player-coach, Bobby Kromm, relentless and highly skilled, who focused on fitness. Dave Rusnell: “ The best coach you could ever have. We just kept winning. We won all but 2 of the exhibition games, then won 6 and tied one in the championship tournament.”
Trail was tied with Czechoslovakia when the final game against the Soviet Union was played. Trail not only had to beat them, but win by 4 goals. Because of the tie, the team with the most tournament goals would win the World Championship. I listened to the game on the radio at my sister’s. Our cousin Norm Lenardon was playing. The Smokies were up by 4 goals in the third period, but the period wasn’t over. Nail biting nervousness. A Soviet player attempts to clear the puck out of his zone when the surprised announcer shouts: “Lenardon intercepts the puck and… SCORES!!! We yelled and screamed and cheered!! It was the “insurance marker” goal!! The title was cinched! The town erupted. We were beside ourselves with excitement.
Twice, Trail welcomed our “Smokies” home on a fire truck, leading a big parade– in 1939 and in 1961. I was there in 1961. The Mayor of Calgary had presented the players with white Stetson hats en route home. In Trail, the team climbed aboard the big red fire truck and paraded all over the town to thousands of cheering fans.
Trail’s goalie Seth Martin, and ‘61 team member Darryl Sly both played in the NHL. Kromm coached the Detroit Red Wings, and several sons and grandsons of ‘61 team members played in the NHL as well.
We’ve had to say goodbye to most of our ‘61 World Champions but we have not and will not forget them. Trail is, after all, a Sports Town. Talented coaches dedicated their adult lives to various sports such as lacrosse, baseball, and hockey and Trail has garnered a huge share of trophies because of their and the community’s commitment to support the teams.