“I was at the far end, like at the river end of the rink, and Mickey Caputo was coming towards me and he asked, ‘Have you ever announced before?’ and I said, ‘No.’ and he asked, ‘Would you like to try?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’
“And that’s how it started.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
That was in 1962, when Darryl “Tiger” Bell Milburn first took his seat behind the microphone, a year following the Trail Smoke Eaters win at the World Championships in Geneva, Switz. He hasn’t surrendered it since.
For over 50 years the Trail native has been the public address announcer for hockey games at the Cominco Arena at every level of play from Atom to the Allan Cup, calling out names as storied as Jean Beliveau of the Montreal Canadiens or Anatoli Tarasov of the USSR, and more recently the Team Canada women’s team to the Junior A Challenge Cup. But no matter who is on the ice, Milburn does it with passion and an understated flare that is unique and endearing to Trail hockey fans.
“He’s been the guy for just about 25 years for the BCHL team and other things,” said Trail Smoke Eaters president Tom Gawryletz. “He volunteers in the Spud Shack with the crew there, he’s a great guy.”
Coincidentally, the former mailman began announcing for the Junior A Trail Smoke Eaters, near the time of his retirement from Canada Post in 1989. Yet, perhaps his greatest thrill behind the microphone was the game announcer when the Soviets visited the Silver City.
“That was my biggest game doing the Russian game in ’63,” said Milburn. “That was a big game.”
Keeping up with the speedy Soviets was a challenge but learning to say the names correctly proved even more demanding. However, with foresight and ingenuity, Tiger tracked down a local man, Sam Conkin, and received a crash course on how to decipher the Cyrillic and pronounce the Russian names correctly.
“When I saw the names, I was thinking how in the hell am I going to say these damn names?” said Milburn. “He (Conkin) broke them all down for me, and I could say Tarasov just like Smith. I got out there and said them all.”
Milburn originally sat in a tiny booth between the player benches. In the early days there was no glass, so the action was up close and almost too personal at times, and when he was moved across the ice between the penalty boxes, he was often caught in the middle of verbal and physical barrages.
But his proximity to the action, only made it that more exciting.
The game has changed remarkably over the last half century, in both substance and style, but Milburn says the players that stick out in his mind are still the World and Allan Cup champion Smoke Eaters of the early 60s.
“There was a lot of good hockey players come through this town,” said Milburn. “But watching the ‘61 team play was awesome, pretty special.”
It’s understandable then that his fondest memories were his trips to Europe with then coach Seth Martin and an Old Timers version of the ‘61 Smoke Eaters in 1974, ‘76, and ‘80 that returned to Switzerland and Sweden for friendly games against old rivals.
“Seth said to me one day, ‘I’m going to take the ‘61 Smoke Eaters back to Sweden, you want to go with us as a helper?’ I said, ‘Sure,’” explained Milburn.
The team played to packed arenas and were treated like royalty, but the chance to travel and socialize with the team was an experience Milburn says he will never forget.
Through it all, Tiger says the stories, and memories of players, coaches and fans, and the excitement of over 50 years of hockey in Greater Trail is reward enough for his efforts.
But few can duplicate the volunteer work that the Tiger Milburns, the Frank Comos, and Bob Moffats do, added Gawryletz.
“The world has changed a lot . . . it’s the same guys grinding things out every day, it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s hard to get those kind of volunteers.”
As for the 79-year-old Milburn, he has no plans to hang up the mike anytime soon.
“It’s been a lot of fun, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it . . . and you know what they say, ‘Volunteers can’t quit, and they can’t get fired.’”
Fortunately for Trail. Yoohoo!