’61 Trail Smoke Eaters, a highlight in a 100 years of Hockey Canada

An excerpt on the '61 Trail Smoke Eaters as featured as one of 100 of Hockey Canada's greatest moments in the seminal book "It's Our Game."

  • Nov. 18, 2014 11:00 a.m.
The book ‘It’s Our Game’ celebrates 100 of Hockey Canada’s greatest moments

The book ‘It’s Our Game’ celebrates 100 of Hockey Canada’s greatest moments

Canada was looking to reclaim gold at the world championship in Switzerland in 1961 and once again the CAHA had to scramble to find a team to represent the country, as the Allan Cup champion Chatham Maroons had declined to disrupt their season by accepting the invitation to play a Christmas tournament in Moscow. So the team they beat, the Trail Smoke Eaters, said yes, and once again took up the torch for Canada.

The Smokies had success at the world championships before, also in Switzerland, winning the gold in 1939 before 19,000 fans in Zurich. But the fact they were going again at all was due to a hockey strategy endorsing the belief that a team playing together all season could beat tuned-up national teams composed of their country’s best players. That, and national pride.

“The whole financial aspect for that trip was so damned bad that anybody in their right mind wouldn’t have touched it with a 10-foot pole,” recalled team manager Ugo DeBiasio. “But we were so anxious to go, we just ignored that factor.”

Eight of the Smoke Eaters had begun their hockey careers together as peewees, and that sense of kinship compelled them to take out personal loans to top up the money kicked in by the town’s major employer, the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada, which would pay the players’ families a weekly stipend while they were on the road, and by the CAHA, which would cover road expenses. The Smoke Eaters, in between staging raffles, wrote to all six NHL teams asking for help, but only the Montreal Canadiens, and their owners, the Molson family, replied. The brewery kicked in $1,000, and the hockey team supplied some equipment. Once again, Canada’s international hockey representatives for the country’s national sport were begging and borrowing for the honour of representing their country.

The Smoke Eaters went on an eighteen-game, five-week barnstorming road tour of Europe, which ended with a win in Cortina, Italy. Their Family von Trapp–like dash to the bus after the game was over, leaving fuming Italian officials with no Canadians to give gifts to because the Smokies were trying to set a land-speed record to catch the 4:00 a.m. train from Innsbruck to Switzerland, in order to have a 24-hour rest before their first world championship game.

They arrived at the championship with the Canadian reputation for butchery preceding them, after thrashing the Swedes en route, and the IIHF referees had all been warned to keep an eye on the boys from Trail. With goalie Seth Martin showing the all-star form that would see him inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame, the Smoke Eaters rose above the machinations of the referees to beat the Swedes 6–1, the West Germans 9–1, the Americans 7–4, the East Germans 5–2, and the Finns 12–1.

It was the Czechs who gave them trouble, and with no small irony. The Czechs had become such fine hockey players because they had been taught “Canadian hockey” by Mike Buckna, a Trail Smoke Eater who returned to the land of his Slovak parents for a visit and wound up coaching the national team. The Trail Smoke Eaters were playing a Czech Smoke Eaters team, but once the Czechs got the 1–0 lead at the end of the first period, they played kitty-bar-the-door defence, lining up at their own blue line and fending off the Canadian attack. When they forced a turnover, they would break out.

It was on one of their breaks that Canada’s Jackie McLeod, a former New York Ranger and the top point scorer in the tournament, broke up the play and passed the puck to Hugh McIntyre, known to all in Trail as “Pinoke” due to his 143-pound self, and a nose worthy of Pinocchio. Pinoke broke into the clear, and fired a shot under the arm of the Czech goalie.

The Czechs were happy to play for a tie, as it would mean that they and Canada had identical records, but the Czechs had a better goals-for-and against record, and they were sure the Soviets would beat or tie the Canadians in three days’ time. They nearly won the game when a Czech player lobbed the puck toward the Canadian goal, and it took one of those mad pinball bounces, pinging off both of Seth Martin’s skates and the goalpost before bouncing out of danger. The game ended in a 1–1 tie, and now Canada had to beat the Soviets. They didn’t know yet how many goals they needed, so they resolved to score as many as they could.

The Soviets came out hard, testing Martin in wave after wave, while his teammates did something that would soon become all too familiar to Canadian hockey fans when it came to meeting the Russian onslaught: they took penalties under the pressure. Finally, at nine minutes into the game, Jackie McLeod passed to defenceman Harry Smith, who found himself in the clear, ten feet in front of the Soviet net, and he “whipped [the puck] past the startled Russian goalie Vladimir Tchinov.” Once Canada had scored, they relaxed, then McLeod added another goal, and then Canada scored again to take a 3–0 lead.

In the first minute of the third period, the Soviet goalie robbed Canadian Hal Jones close in, but Jackie McLeod scooped up the rebound and popped it in the net. The Soviets finally put one past Seth Martin midway through the third, and the Canadians worried that their goal differential might not be good enough to claim the gold. So rather than sit on their lead, they attacked, and with two minutes to play, Norm Lenardon stole the puck off Soviet captain Sologubov in the Soviet end, lost it, got it back, and while falling to the ice shot it over the shoulder of Tchinov to make it 5–1.

For the rest of the game, the Canadians owned the puck, and they played the last thirty seconds of the game in the Soviet end, while back in Canada’s goal, the heroic Seth Martin swung his goal stick over his head like he was a helicopter about to take off. He was soon swigging from a bottle of rye that a jubilant Canadian soldier, one of the many in the crowd of 12,500, had hopped over the boards to give him.

The Smokies’ coach, Bobby Kromm, threw his red Hudson’s Bay team jacket into the air, and whooped in relief. Kromm had been player-coach until he benched himself to concentrate on the medal round. He had worked the team so hard and mercilessly that his neck veins bulged as he harangued them on their failures, and he had alienated some in his pursuit of this moment. “I felt as if the Royal York Hotel had been lifted off my shoulders,” he said, now that Canada had won its nineteenth world title, even if on goal differential.

The next day, the hungover Smokies went to Paris to decompress for a day, and then they went onward to the Canadian Army base at Soest, West Germany, for one more match. The exhausted Smokies played an exhibition game against a Canadian Army team in a packed arena, but when they learned that children living on the base couldn’t get into the game, they played another one the next morning, just for the kids. Then they made the long journey back to Trail, blissfully unaware of their bittersweet place in hockey history: the last Canadian amateur team to win a world championship.