The City of Trail made it official: March 12 is now and forever, “Trail Smoke Eaters World Championship Teams Day.”
This Friday marks 60 years to the day the Smoke Eaters captured the 1961 World Ice Hockey Championship trophy in Geneva, Switzerland. So it’s more than appropriate that the city passed the motion to pay homage to both the 1939 and 1961 Smoke Eater teams.
“This year is the Smoke Eaters 60th Anniversary,” said Trail councillor Sandy Santori. “So it honours both the ‘39 and the ‘61 teams and every year on March 12 we’ll hang the ‘61 Smoke Eater flag from the arena or city hall as well as the 1939 flag.
“It would be nice to to keep the legacy going on. Because people who haven’t read the history and the books and what they were faced with, I mean it was against all odds and it was quite the accomplishment.”
For ‘61 Smoke Eaters forward Dave Rusnell, the gesture is appreciated.
Few expected a senior men’s team from a small Kootenay mining town to compete with the world’s best, let alone culminate their journey with an impressive 5-1 victory over the vaunted Russians in the final match.
Rusnell, a Saskatchewan native, was a late pick up, but was impressed with the core group of Smoke Eaters right from the start.
“Somebody from the CAHA (Canadian Amateur Hockey Association) had recommended me and had watched me play for a while, so I tell everybody I was a hired gun,” Rusnell laughed.
“I played with some good hockey players out there, but I came here and there was eight players from Trail, that’s what makes it even more significant as far as I’m concerned. The core of the team was based on eight guys locally, and I knew from the first practice we had a quality team.”
While many, including the CAHA, lacked confidence in the Smoke Eaters chances in Geneva, the team proved unbeatable in the world championship tournament.
Coach Bobby Kromm was an innovative and relentless player/coach, whose preparation and focus on fitness was years ahead of its time.
“Fitness was always big for me before I came here,” said Rusnell. “But when I went through one of Bob’s practices, I knew then that whoever we’re playing better be good for three periods.
“He gave us these practices and he was playing-coach so how can you complain when he is doing stops-and-starts with the rest of us. His two-hour practices were monumental.”
The Smoke Eaters played 18 exhibition games through Europe including three in Moscow against the Soviet Union before facing off at the world championship tournament.
For Rusnell, those games were key in preparing the Smoke Eaters for the large European ice and style of play.
“By the time we got there, we knew what we were up against, and we had a good team. But we also had something they didn’t, and that was hitters – open-ice hitters.”
The Russians were older, bigger, and more disciplined, says Rusnell. But Smoke Eater players like George Ferguson, Don Fletcher, Harry Smith, Ed Cristofoli and Walt Peacosh were aggressive, hard-hitting and skilled.
Trail not only had to beat the Soviet Union in their last game, they had to win by at least four goals as it came down to goal differential and their record was identical to the Czech’s.
Leading 4-1 in the third period, Norm Lenardon would secure the world championship title when he intercepted a clearing attempt inside the Russian zone and fired the puck into the net for a 5-1 victory.
Canada finished the tournament with a 6-0-1 record, and Rusnell fondly recalls what the impact of going overseas and winning the championship meant to him.
“My three brothers and my dad gave their best years of their lives overseas in the war, and so I always said that because of what they did, the only weapons that we had to carry was a hockey stick and a pair of skates.
“So when I had the Canada sweater on, I felt like a million.”
Rusnell did not return to Saskatchewan, but was joined by his wife in Trail, where he worked for Teck (Cominco), and raised a son and two daughters in Warfield.
“The team, they really took us in as a family, it was a marvelous organization,” said Rusnell. “I was enormously surprised and impressed because every facet of sport: basketball, baseball, hockey, fastball, track and field – there was somebody there, a super coach, who devoted their lives to it so that every sport turned out great teams.
“That’s why Trail is such a great place, they had the people that took on the responsibility. Every [opposing] team, they knew they were going to be in for a battle.”
The 1939 world champion Smoke Eaters defeated the Cornwall Flyers 3 games to 1 in the best-of-five to win the Allan Cup. They then rolled through the World Ice Hockey Championship, going undefeated with an 8-0 record in Switzerland.
After the ‘61 Smoke Eaters victory, Canada did not win another world title until 1994 by a team made up of the best players in the NHL.
Due to COVID, no public celebration can take place at this time.
So in honour of the world champions – raise a glass, and say a prayer for those who have passed and a simple thank you to those who remain – to the ‘39 and ‘61 Smoke Eaters.