Team member recalls the Spirit of ‘61
Dave Rusnell came to Trail from Saskatchewan in 1960 on an invitation from the Smoke Eaters to join the World Championships in Europe.
Trail was booming with projects like the new four lane bridge, so it took Rusnell a few weeks to find a decent place. When he did, he was joined by his wife Marleen — with whom he has now been married for 55 years — and two youngsters. A third was born shortly afterwards in Trail.
Although five new players were added to the roster, the team of 17 players was tightly knit.
“Eight of the players came through the Trail Minor Hockey system, which made for a close group,” Rusnell said.
The team also bonded in post game parties with their families. “We did a lot of singing,” said Rusnell, himself an accomplished musician. “Seth Martin, he could sing folk songs really great, harmony and the whole works. We managed to hang in their sometimes until 2, 2:30 in the morning. We had a whale of a time.”
As a hockey team, he said, the exhibition games in Scandinavia, Czechoslovakia, East and West Germany, and the Soviet Union were “the best thing we ever did. [On tour], it takes a while for a team to get going.”
Also, “we weren’t familiar with the huge ice surfaces. Most were at least 100 feet wide, some were nearly 220 feet long.” Behind the net there was so much room “you could have played a shinny game back there!”
“You had to be on the ball, you had to think ahead,” he said. “If you lost your check or got out of sync, you really paid for it.”
“The competition was fierce,” he continued. “You weren’t just two teams playing against each other, this was Canada versus that country. We were up for every game because we knew the responsibilities that we had. We had an obligation to the people who believed in us, who’d gone out to raise the funds to send us over there.”
“Every rink we went to, we’d be walking in with our bags on our shoulder going in to get dressed and the rinks were already full,” he recalled. “A lot of places, there was standing room only. Every rink, whatever capacity they had, it was packed.”
“The pressure is so great. It’s a terrible load to carry, but at the same time I got so I enjoyed it,” Rusnell said. “Every game you had to play your best.”
“We had good forwards, but Seth Martin was just an absolutely outstanding goaltender. He was probably the MVP for the whole tournament,” Rusnell said. “And our defence — some of the games that we played, particularly in Czechoslovakia and Russia, were as tough as any of the games I ever played in Canada, believe me.”
Trail’s Mikey Buchna is considered the founder of hockey in Czechoslovakia. “They say he never came out of the corner without the puck,” Rusnell said. “Because of him, the Czechoslovakian style of hockey was a lot like ours. They gave it, they took it, they didn’t complain. I really enjoyed playing those guys.”
Other countries weren’t fond of Canada’s tough edge.
“When you go there, you have a job to do, and it isn’t always nice,” he said, “People have to do what they have to do, especially when it’s your country against his country.”
“We always got a good reception on the streets,” he said, remembering how they stood out in bright red Hudson Bay jackets. Nevertheless, “some places, they loved to hate us, but still they loved to watch us play,” particularly in Sweden.
“Some of these players coming down the ice, they could skate like the wind, but if they didn’t pay attention to business, there were some really tremendous checks. In Canada, you gotta learn to look where you’re going and be aware,” he said. “We had defencemen who were as good open-ice hitters as I’ve ever seen. [They] got a couple of [Sweden’s] players and put them out for the whole rest of the season. They were clean checks, honest-to-goodness.”
“I’m very happy the Swedish guys didn’t take offence. Most of them were bigger guys, they could have chewed us up!” Rusnell laughed. “But they’re raised to be very gentlemanly and they frown on public fighting and ‘being hooligans’.”
In 1974 the Smoke Eaters returned to Sweden to replay their old matches. “We had a great time,” Rusnell recalled.
The Smoke Eaters sailed through most of the tournament, but the first crunch came against the Czechs. Despite six losses in the exhibition games, the Czechs scored early, and maintained their lead by riding the puck along the boards as temperatures rose dramatically on the outdoor ice.
“Fifteen, 20 feet in from the edges it started to melt,” Rusnell said. “The whole ice was soft, so you couldn’t manipulate the puck.”
In the third period, “Pinoke McIntyre saved our necks. That was the biggest goal of the whole tournament.”
Heading into the final game against the Soviet Union, the Smoke Eaters needed a three-goal lead in the final score to win the tournament. This was at the height of the Russia-Canada competitions and a turning point in history: The Soviets would win 20 of the next 25 world championships.
“The Czechs were in the stands watching the final game, all in nice track suits. We’d be lucky to beat the Russians, they thought, and rightly so,” Rusnell said.
“But the way the game went, we never played such a game. Bobby Kromm was a smart guy and he called the plays he knew we had to do. Seth Martin had it rigged. He always seemed to be in front of it, able to handle it.”
Looking back to the exhibition games, Rusnell said, “We had to figure out the style. They’d have the puck for 65 per cent of the game, but they always had to have the perfect shot. The first guy over [the blue line generally] made the play, so you had to make sure you took him.”
By contrast, “We sometimes would just slap it in. It didn’t matter if it was artistic.”
“The Russians were very technically well trained. They took time to develop every aspect of the game. It was difficult to take them out with your body cause they moved the puck so well,” he said.
“They remind me of the players of today,” he commented. “Those European players brought in a tremendous puck control and style of hockey, they were more prone to develop complete players. Canada had to shape up. Now everybody’s dangerous.”
Thinking back to 1961, Rusnell said, “I thoroughly respect all the players we played against. When it comes down to it, if you take away the sweaters, they’re just ordinary young people like us, doing the best that they can, trying to play the game.”