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They aren’t the Montreal Canadiens, or the Toronto Maple Leafs, but there is one team that has seen immense success in hockey and established itself as a legendary part of Canadian hockey lore.
The Trail Smoke Eaters may not be a household name to most Canadians, but they are known in hockey circles as having some of the best Canadian teams of all time.
Based in Trail, British Columbia, the Smoke Eaters get their name from the Cominco Smelter located in the community. The smelter has been the major employer of Trail residents for decades and contributed heavily to the evolution of the town.
The Trail Smoke Eaters, as a team, have been around for almost 100 years. Hockey had been around in Trail for sometime, with a team competing locally with other nearby communities. That early Trail team won their first Daily News Cup in 1914, and would go on to win 11 more by 1925. Starting out in 1926, they quickly established themselves as one of the best teams in the country with a strong roster of dominant players. Known at the time as the Trail Hockey Club, they won the provincial championship, the Savage Cup, in 1927. The team name would become the Trail Smoke Eaters after that year.
How did the name come about? Legend has it that in the 1928 Savage Cup finals, a penalty was called on a Trail player. Fans were not happy and they began throwing debris on the ice. One item that was thrown was a corn-cob pipe. It was picked up by a Trail player, who promptly started puffing away on it. A cartoon appeared in Trail’s paper the following day and the sports writer called them the ‘smoke-eaters’.
That all being said, references to the Trail Smoke Eaters goes back to as far as 1901 in the community.
The community of Trail, with a population of 7,000, went hockey mad and the arena routinely filled with 3,000 people for each game. The team would go on to win seven consecutive Savage Cups from 1927 to 1933, as well as again in 1938.
From 1932 to 1934, Mike Buckna played for the team. In 1935, he left for Czechoslovakia and began coaching their national team. He would continue to coach the national team after the Second World War and would help to spread Canadian hockey techniques throughout Europe and Russia. Today, he is called the Father of Czech hockey.
In 1938, the senior team won the Allan Cup, the highest trophy in senior men’s hockey. They would defeat Cornwall three games to one to win. When the team returned to Trail, 7,000 people greeted them at the downtown train station.
That win allowed them to compete for Canada at the Ice Hockey World Championships in 1939.
Embarking for a tour of hockey to Europe, they left on Dec. 10, 1938 for a series of 55 games throughout the continent. They would win 53 of those games, lose one and tie one. Including the championship games, they would play 71 games and won 62. They would score 374 goals and be scored on 177 times.
The ten-day championship started on Feb. 3, 1939 and steamrolled through the competition.
They would win the championship and become the pride of the country as a result. Over the course of the eight game finals they played, the team scored 42 goals against their opponents. In their final games, they would beat Switzerland 7-0, Czechoslovakia 4-0 and the United States 4-0.
Anatoli Tarasov, who would become a great Russian coach, commented in his later years that the Trail Smoke Eaters of 1939 were one of the greatest teams he had ever seen and he used their same techniques when coaching in Russia.
The team would win the Savage Cup again in 1940, 1941, 1946, 1948, 1952 and 1960.
In 1949, Cominco Arena was constructed, and would be one of the best arenas in all of British Columbia.
The senior Smoke Eaters repeated as champions in 1962 when they won their second Allan Cup by beating the Montreal Olympics four games to one.
The year before they represented Canada again at the Ice Hockey World Championships and won the gold medal once again.
Over the course of the tournament, they would finish first among the eight teams with six wins and only one tie. They would score 45 goals to the 11 scored against them. Seth Martin, the Smoke Eaters’ goalie, would be chosen as the best goaltender of the tournament. He would go on to play 30 games for the St. Louis Blues and help get them to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1968.
With the creation of the Men’s National Hockey Team in 1963, the Trail Smoke Eaters had the distinction of being the last independent hockey club to represent Canada on the international stage.
The team would win their last Savage Cups in 1979 and 1983. In all, they won the Savage Cup, the top senior amateur hockey championship in British Columbia, a total of 18 times. This was more than any other team.
The team officially folded on Jan. 29, 1987.
The junior club of the Trail Smoke Eaters started in 1926 as well, and moved between junior, Junior A and Junior B levels of hockey in British Columbia.
Beginning in 1931-32, the junior Smoke Eaters won the first of 22 Mowat Cups, which is the Junior A championship in British Columbia, over the course of 29 seasons. In 1944, the team would win the Abbott Cup.
In the 1970s, the junior Smoke Eaters began playing as a Junior B team before becoming Junior A from 1991-92 to 1994-95 in the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League. In 1995-96, they joined the Junior A British Columbia Hockey League.
The junior Smoke Eaters won the KJHL championship in 1969-70, the WKHL championship the following year and the KIJHL championship in 1978-79, 1980-81 and 1990-91.
Several members of the Trail Smoke Eaters have gone on to have NHL careers including Shawn Horcoff, Steve McCarthy, Ray Ferraro, Steve Tambellini, Mike Zanier and Wade Dubielewicz.