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. Without a doubt, the Trail Smoke Eaters can be considered a dynasty team on the level of the Montreal Canadiens when it comes to amateur hockey.
There is currently a junior team by the same name, but I am focusing on the Smoke Eaters, especially their early years and their championships in 1939 and 1961.
The Trail Smoke Eaters, as a team, have been around for almost 100 years. Hockey had been around in Trail for some time, 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.
The Trail club was one of the best in the province. When the McBride Cup was donated by Premier Richard McBride in 1913, it did not take long for the hockey team to start winning the trophy. In 1914, the team took the Cup after winning 13 games out of 15. Trail won the cup again in 1915.
Trail was becoming hockey mad for its team and that led to the Fruit Fair Building, which became only the fourth arena in British Columbia to have artificial ice, and the first between Winnipeg and Vancouver.
In 1926-27, after dominating provincial hockey for years, the people behind the Trail Hockey Club wanted to go bigger and that meant going for the Allan Cup, the top amateur hockey trophy in Canada. The team got off to a good start when the team won the 1926-27 Savage Cup, the top hockey trophy in British Columbia. This Savage Cup win was the first of seven in a row, and the first of 19, for the Trail Smoke Eaters.
So, what about that name? Well, let’s dive into that.
Legend has it that in the 1928 Savage Cup finals, a penalty was called Howard Anderson, a trail player, after he tripped a player from Vancouver. 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 another Trail player named Carroll Kendall, 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 go back to as far as April 1901 in the community.
The Trail Creek News reported quote:
“After the last baseball game, a challenge was issued by the Trail Smelter Smoke Eater Baseball Team to play the War Eagle and Centre Star Baseball Team.”
Another mention would come a few years later, showing that the name likely comes from the workers from the smelter who played on the teams.
By 1921, the name Smoke Eaters was starting to appear in relation to the senior hockey team.
No matter where the name came from, it is one of the most unique team names in hockey.
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.
Back to the team now. As I mentioned, the Trail Smoke Eaters would capture seven straight Savage Cups from 1926-27 to 1932-33. While Trail was proving itself to be the best team in the province, the players and fans wanted them to be the best in Canada, and maybe the world.
One player on the team who would reshape hockey in Europe was Mike Buckna, who played for the Smoke Eaters from 1932 to 1934. He was a fantastic athlete who could skate as a toddler and was a gifted baseball player as well.
In 1934-35, during a visit to his ancestral homeland of Czechoslovakia, he watched the Prague Lawn Tennis Hockey Club play and asked the coach if he could take part in the workout the next day. Easily the most talented person on the ice, he was offered a coaching position immediately. In November of 1935, he moved to Prague to begin to coach the club, spending the next three years, greatly increasing the notice of hockey in the country. Returning home in 1939 as the Second World War dawned, he would come back to Czechoslovakia after the war and led the national team to a world championship in 1947, its first ever.
Buckna would come back to Trail in 1949 to play and coach for the Smoke Eaters. In 1978, he went back to Czechoslovakia on the invitation of the government. There, he was officially honored as the Father of Czech hockey.
As for the Smoke Eaters, another Savage Cup win would come in 1937-38 and it was that year that the team would finally take things to the next level.
In 1938, the senior team completed its decade long quest to win the Allan Cup. The road to the Cup began when the team won the Savage Cup. At that point, they were on to play Calgary at the Inter-Provincial Playoff, winning 5-0 and 7-0, then playing Flin Flon in the Western Canada semi-final and outscoring them 13-4 int he best-of-three series. In the Western Canada Final against Port Arthur, the Smoke Eaters continued to dominate, winning 5-3, 8-1 and 7-3. It was now time for the team to play the Cornwall Flyers for the Allan Cup. A total of 700 people from Trail made the journey to Calgary to watch the series. The Smoke Eaters would win the first game 8-2 but lost the second game 2-1. In the third game, Trail won the Allan Cup with a 3-1 victory.
Upon the team’s return to Trail, 7,000 people packed into the downtown area, on building rooftops and more, to welcome the players back home. With that Allan Cup win, the team was ready to compete in the Ice Hockey World Championship in 1939.
Embarking for Europe, they left on Dec. 10, 1938, to begin a 55-game European tour. In those 55 games, the Smoke Eaters would win 53 of those games, lose one and tie one. The West Kootenay Hockey Review would write quote:
“The progress of the Smoke Eaters European tour was recorded in a continuous flow of highly-enthusiastic reports to Canada. Continental sporting pages were packed in paens of praise for the Mountain Magicians from Trail.”
Through their games, the team did not wear the traditional maple leaf uniform. A Swiss newspaper would write quote:
“Something new in badges is displayed on the jerseys of the Smoke Eaters. The crest is inspired by the fact that Trail is a very busy industrial town, and lead smelting is a big job there. These Smoke Eaters, clad in dramatic orange and black, have done their hometown and Canada proud.”
Ab Cronie would say quote:
Throughout the tour, the Smoke Eaters sold out arenas, but each player was only paid $2 per game. Over the course of 71 games, which amounted to $142, or $2,625 today. The team would complain to Bunny Ahearne, who was the head of the International Ice Hockey Federation. In response, Ahearne asked them if they knew where their boat tickets were. They said their manager had them, and Ahearne responded with quote:
“No, I have them and do you know another way to get back home to Canada?”
Cronie would say quote:
“That guy was bad, a real jerk. His organization was making thousands of dollars off the Trail Smoke Eaters, but he was throwing us peanuts. Eventually we got a little more out of him, but not nearly what we should have got.”
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, while giving up only one goal. That one goal was actually against Czechoslovakia, now coached by Mike Buckna, and it was accidently scored by Trail defenseman Tom Johnston, who put it in his own net.
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.
While the team was happy to have won the championship, most felt that winning the Allan Cup was the bigger thrill because they had to beat very good teams to claim the title.
The entire experience the players mostly enjoyed, apart from the low pay. Jimmy Haight would say quote:
“We rode buses and trains and at one point played 17 nights in a row, all in different places. Some of the rinks were pretty bad but for me the enjoyment was seeing the different people and places. Playing hockey was just something we did while we were there. Again, that’s where the closeness of the team really came from it. Most of us had never been too far away from home for any length of time, so we really got to know each other.”
Including the championship games in Europe, the Smoke Eaters would play 71 games. During that time, they would score 374 goals and be scored on 177 times. They would average 5.5 goals for, and only 1.1 goals against. The team would score 10 goals or more in a game six times, including 14 goals on Jan. 27, 1939, against Antwerp.
After the championship run, several of the Smoke Eaters on that team would go on to have success elsewhere in the hockey world. Duke Scodellaro would play goal for the Royal Canadian Air Force All-Stars for three years during the Second World War, while Ab Cronie would play for the Smoke Eaters until 1952, becoming the longest serving Smoke Eater in history at 18 years. Joe Benoit would go on to play for the Montreal Canadiens, winning a Stanley Cup with the team. Bunny Dame would also play for the Canadiens. Johnny McCreedy arguably had the most successful career, going on to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs and winning two Stanley Cups with the team.
After capturing the top trophy in Canada, and then the world, the Smoke Eaters went back to dominating provincial hockey. The team would win the Savage Cup again in 1940, 1941, 1946, 1948, 1952 and 1960.
During those years between championships, several other players would make their way to the team. One was a man by the name of Larry Kwong. In 1945-46, Kwong would play 19 games for the Smoke Eaters, registering 20 points. Two years later in 1947-48, he would suit up for the New York Rangers, breaking the colour barrier of the NHL, becoming the first non-white player in NHL history. He accomplished this a decade before Willie O’Ree became the first black player in NHL history.
In 1949, Cominco Arena was constructed, and would be one of the best arenas in all of British Columbia. This 2,537-seat arena was built in 1949, thanks to community donations and money from the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada. The facility, which featured wooden benches at the time, was built completely by tradesmen who volunteered their time. This arena also holds a special place for me as it was where I not only got to touch the Stanley Cup, but it was also where I interviewed Walter Gretzky. The arena cost $600,000 at the time and opened on Dec. 1, 1949. Due to its wooden benches, it could seat 4,500 people. At the time, it was an arena that came close to rivalling some of the NHL arenas. The opening was no small affair with a packed house enjoying music from the Legion and Maple Leaf bands, several dignitaries, and even some lifetime seats awarded to a lucky few. A 1949 Sedan was even given away to one of the attendees who had the lucky ticket.
On Jan. 27, 1960, the Smoke Eaters would host the Moscow Selects at Cominco Arena. This was the first Soviet team to tour Canada and had played throughout Canada, dominating games and winning eight in a row at one point. Then, they met the Smoke Eaters.
On the day of the game, Cominco was filled with 5,750 people, including people standing six deep on the upper walkway of the rink. Norman Lenardon would say quote:
“It is something I’ll never, ever forget, and I guess the fire marshall won’t either. To skate onto the ice that night and see that many people in my hometown rink was unbelievable.”
Many of the players had just come off their shift at the smelter and walked to the arena to get ready to play.
The Smoke Eaters would win 7-6, giving the Soviets their only defeat in their month-long tour of Canada. Coach Bobby Kromm would say quote:
In 1961, the Smoke Eaters were then called upon to represent Canada again at the Ice Hockey World Championships, once again winning a gold medal for Canada.
They would embark on a 51-day tour of Europe, but it came at no small cost as $20,000 had to be raised since the players needed to ensure their families still had money coming in while they were gone.
On Jan. 26, 1961, the team boarded a bus to head to the Castlegar Airport. They would reach Ireland four days later.
This time, the team would win most of its games, but not all, as the world of hockey was changing. The team would lose 4-0 to Sweden at one point but after that the team buckle down and get to work winning. In Moscow, as only the third Canadian team to ever play there, the Smoke Eaters tied the Wings of the Soviet team 3-3. In the next game, the Moscow team won 3-0, but the Smoke Eaters won the third game 4-1 and received a standing ovation from the crowd.
Over the course of the world championship tournament, they would finish first among the eight teams with six wins and only one tie. In the first four games of the tournament, the team outscored its opponents 27-8, but other teams like East Germany and Czechoslovakia were much harder to beat.
Overall, the team would score 45 goals to the 11 scored against them.
In the championship game, the team took on the Soviets in front of 17,000 people, including 1,000 Canadian servicemen from bases in Germany and would take the game 4-0 to claim their second world championship.
Seth Martin, the Smoke Eaters’ goalie, would be chosen as the best goaltender of the tournament.
James Cameron, former president of the Smoke Eaters would say of Martin quote:
“In some ways, Seth’s role throughout the season was similar to what Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog had to do 25 years later with the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL. Some nights, the team would get so carried away with scoring goals that the guys weren’t always in a hurry to come back and help out on defense. It drove Bobby nuts, but Seth was always there.”
Martin would say of that Smoke Eaters team quote:
“I think what really made that team unique was that it was so localized. There were 10 guys who were either born or raised in the Trail area or who moved here at a young age and played all their minor hockey here.”
Kromm would say of the 1961 Smoke Eaters quote:
“The 1961 Smoke Eaters might not have been the most talented team in the world but, as I’ve always maintained, there was no team in better condition.”
The senior Smoke Eaters had another bit of glory the following year when they won their second Allan Cup by beating the Montreal Olympics four games to one.
Between 1959 and 1962, the Smoke Eaters played 190 games against the best teams in Canada and in Europe. During that time, they won 145 times. They also won 11 of the 12 trophies they challenged for during that span.
Several members of that team would go on to their own bit of glory in the world of hockey.
Martin would go on to play for the St. Louis Blues, helping them reach the Stanley Cup Final in 1968 as a backup to Glenn Hall.
Personally, I would call Martin the greatest Smoke Eaters in the history of the team. He would win the top goaltender award in the league nine times, double any other goalie in its history. Martin would represent Canada at the world championships not only in 1961, but 1963, 1964 and 1965. In the 1964 Olympics, he finished with a 4-1-0 record and 1.21 goals against average.
Murray Grieg, author of Trail on Ice, a great book that was fantastic for my research in this episode, would say of Martin quote:
“Martin’s heroics are recalled with particular reverence by the European fans who watched him. For years afterwards the Soviets regarded him as something of a goaltending wizard. Coach Father Bauer recalled that the Europeans thought he was invincible. His very presence was enough to psych out the opposition.”
Martin would also receive many offers to play in the NHL, but he had to choose between professional hockey or keeping his firefighter pension and in the days before huge salaries for players, he chose the pension.
In 1997, Martin was an inaugural inductee into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame. He was one of only two Canadian charter members, along with Harry Sinden.
At the ceremony, Vladislav Tretiak, considered one of the greatest goalies in hockey history, came up to Martin and gave him a hug
Martin would say of the incident quote:
In 1988, he was inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame.
Darryl Sly would also go on to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Minnesota North Stars and Vancouver Canucks.
Player-coach Bobby Kromm would go on to coach in the NHL, winning the Jack Adams Trophy in 1978 while coaching the Detroit Red Wings. He would also coach the Winnipeg Jets to the WHA championship in 1976.
The entire 1960-61 Trail Smoke Eaters were also inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 1976.
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. Canada wouldn’t win another world championship until 1994 when NHL players, currently on strike, played on the national team.
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 19 times. This was more than any other team by far.
The team officially folded on Jan. 29, 1987.
Information from NHL.com, Blowing Smoke, Trail on Ice, Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, BC Sports Hall of Fame,