For Smoke Eater fans despairing of the long winless run – take heart.
The current team is nowhere close to the worst season-start for a team wearing that logo, and a coaching change turned that dismal season around, at least somewhat, and gave Smokie fans a bit to cheer about in the end.
In 1969-70, the senior team initially led by Bob Wiest failed to gain a single victory in the 1969 portion of the season. By January, they were around 0-23 and not looking anything less than hapless.
By then Wiest was no longer in charge. ‘61 world champion Norm Lenardon had taken the helm.
That was a season in which there were three Alberta Senior Hockey League teams in the schedule, Edmonton, Calgary and Drumheller. The first win finally came at the end of a three-game trip through the ASHL.
Trail lost to Calgary, then to an Edmonton club run by former Smokie star Terry Cavanaugh, then headed to Drumheller, where the Smokies’ captain and leading goal scorer, a central Alberta native, was so popular the rink was overflowing.
Ron Leopold left Drumheller for Trail after becoming a favourite son and leading scorer in Drumheller the previous season. His return was triumphant – for Leopold had a hat trick and a four point night, and the Smokies finally got a win, 5-3. From that point, the Smoke Eaters were competitive almost every night in the WIHL and ended up totalling twelve wins and a tie in their final 27 games.
It wasn’t enough to gain them a playoff berth, even in a lopsided league dominated by Spokane Jets and the scholarship-fueled Nelson Maple Leafs, but their season wasn’t officially devoid of post-season potential until the last two weeks of play.
Twelve wins, 37 losses and a tie isn’t a record to brag about, but the improved, “A change is as good as a rest,” play somewhat mollified fans who not long before had watched the Smoke Eaters brand crowned with a World Championship (in which effort Lenardon was a key part) and two Allan Cup finals, one of which they won, on home ice.
There was some talent on the squad. Gary Ferro finished second in assists and overall in league scoring and Leopold was fifth in goals and eighth in points. Long time followers may be surprised to learn that supposed wild-man Ken Uzeloc was well back of the leaders in penalty minutes for the year, nearly a game and a half (80 minutes) behind Wayne Spooner of Cranbrook and half a game back of long time Spokane stalwart Tom Hodges.
The story suggests the current Smoke Eaters’ season hopes may not be done, just yet.
• I just want to note that Bob Wiest was a good guy and very hockey-knowledgeable. He was done in by a lack of experience coaching at the senior level and a turnover in the management of the club that created some turmoil early on.
A favourite memory of that time for me is the 50-plus Wiest frequently whipping local stick-skills wunderkind Ferro on faceoffs during practice.
Those that can, I guess, can’t always coach effectively.