The 1961 Trail Smoke Eaters were treated to a hero’s welcome — including this parade in Trail — upon returning home to Canada after defeating Russia in the World Hockey Championships. Their big win was 50 years ago this Saturday.

A history of local hockey as anniversary of ’61 win approaches

Trail’s first hockey team was formed in 1912, four years after the Boundary region formed B.C.’s first hockey league.

Trail’s first hockey team was formed in 1912, four years after the Boundary region formed B.C.’s first hockey league.

In 1922, Kootenay teams started to compete for the amateur provincial title, the Savage Cup, and ultimately the top amateur national title, the Allan Cup, whose winners go on to the World Championships.

Rossland won the provincial title in 1924 and 1925. In 1926, Trail’s first senior amateur team was organized and they immediately won the Savage Cup for seven years in row, reaching the Allan Cup semi-finals in the first four of those years.

The name “Smoke Eaters” was coined for the 1928-29 season and stuck.

In 1938, the Smoke Eaters won the Allan Cup in Calgary and went on to win the World Championships in Switzerland in eight games, outscoring their opponents 42 to 1.

The West Kootenay Hockey League paused for the Second War, but resumed in 1945. The WKHL became the Western International Hockey League in 1946 with the inclusion of Spokane. The Smokies won the 1947-48 and 1948-49 Savage Cup.

Right winger Bobby Kromm arrived on the scene in 1950. He would become the league’s all-time points leader and would coach the famous 1961 World Championship team.

After winning the Savage Cup in 1951-52, the Smokies did not appear on the provincial scene again until 1960.

The 1959-60 Smoke Eaters ended up in the Allan Cup finals against Chatham, Ontario. The Chatham Maroons came to Trail and defeated the Smokies in four of five games — the other game was tied 5-5 after overtime, but the Maroons declined the invitation to the World Championship and passed the honour to the 1960-61 Smoke Eaters who would take home the championship for Canada.

It didn’t come easily. The Maroons returned from a series against the Soviet Union in 1960 having lost five of seven games. The Canadian Amateur Hockey Association told the Smoke Eaters to strengthen their roster with five players, and Kromm went out and did just that, picking from the best in Canada.

One of them, Dave Rusnell, said recently: “There were probably a lot of other hockey players who were maybe better than us, but we were chosen, so we did the best job we could do.”

It was a financial struggle too, but the community came together to support the Smokies. Student campaigns raised money, and businesses agreed to continue paying player’s salaries while they were away. Trail contributed $14,000 from city coffers and surrounding centres, especially Nelson, also chipped in to reach the $23,000 needed to make the trip possible.

Coach Kromm emphasized conditioning, and the team played 36 games in B.C. and two games out of province before boarding a jet in Montreal.

Beginning in Norway, the team began an 18 game exhibition tour in games usually attended by more than 10,000 fans, and up to 17,000 in Moscow.

A loss against Sweden was a heart-stopper, but the next three games were won handily. The Soviets were the stiffest competition with the three game series beginning with a 3-3 tie, moving to a 3-2 loss, and ending with a win for Trail of 4-1.

Going into the championship, the Soviets were the favourite to win, but the competition proved otherwise, with Canada and Czechoslovakia ending neck-and-neck with six wins and one tie each, the tie with each other.

Canada was declared the winner on goals for and against among the top four teams, squeaking by just two points ahead of Czechoslovakia after Trails final win, 5-1 against the Soviet Union.

The players returned to a hero’s welcome.

“In Calgary they gave us all White Stetsons,” Rusnell recalled. “We landed in Castlegar and had a car cavalcade. Groups of people all down the way in Castlegar. When we got to Trail, they got the fire trucks out and we had a parade!”

It would be the end of an era. The Smokies went to the championships again in 1963, but settled for fourth behind the Soviets, Swedes, and Czechs.

The Smokies’ 1961 win was Canada’s 20th gold in 28 world championships since 1920. But after 1961, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Sweden would dominate the amateur scene until Canada won again in 1994.

In 1976, the 1960-61 Smokies were inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.