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james christie

Trail Smoke Eaters won the 1961 World hockey championship. Trail sweater that was worn by Bobby Kromm. Hockey Hall of fame photo

It's a history lesson wrapped around a hockey legend.

The year was 1961 and innocence was on the run in a world that was getting swallowed up by the Cold War and by fear.

Canada's Trail Smoke Eaters were making a stand as amateur hockey players against a Soviet system that was decidedly professional - army men recruited from all of its republics against Canadian farm boys, factory workers and firemen. The 1961 world hockey championship in Geneva, Switzerland, would come to be a touchstone of Canadian hockey. There have been other Olympics and other world championships, but the Smokies are an enduring icon.

In Trail, B.C., a small industrial town in southeastern British Columbia, a scrappy amateur team known as the Trail Smoke Eaters had lost the Allan Cup senior hockey title to the Chatham Maroons. The Maroons were asked by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association to play for the world championship in Geneva, but the Maroons turned down the trip, opting instead to go to another tournament in the Soviet Union where everything would be paid for.

Canadian hockey officials turned to the Smoke Eaters, but told the company team that it would have to be stronger and bolster its ranks with players from elsewhere in the country. The players would also have to pick up the cost of the trip themselves.

"Nobody believed in us," says Don Fletcher, who will join surviving members of the 1961 team Saturday afternoon at Royal Theatre in Trail to relive the improbable world championship - Canada's last world hockey championship until pros named Joe Sakic, Rod Brind'Amour, Rob Blake, Luc Robitaille and Brendan Shanahan restored Canada's global glory with a world title 33 years later in 1994.

"We're famous for being underdogs. The European press called us murderers and butchers. The Swedish papers called us the worst team ever to leave Canada, thugs and gangsters. But I thought it was the greatest team I ever played for," Fletcher said.

The woodsy town of 15,000 believed in them and staged fundraisers to gather $42,000 for a seven-week trip.

The trip involved 14 European countries and 40 kilometres while the Smokies got used to unfamiliar European foods and big ice rinks, sometimes playing hockey outdoors in front of 18,000, and not being allowed to bodycheck in the attacking zone.

Salaries were covered by the town's big employer, Consolidated Mining and Smelting Co. of Canada Ltd. (later known as Cominco and Teck Resources), where most of the players held jobs.

"It was community driven," says Betty Anne Morino, promotions co-ordinator for the town and one of the organizers of the anniversary. "We think about other world championships and the Olympics and the NHL, but these guys were amateurs. They held down jobs. A lot of them didn't turn pro because, in those days, a good job was worth keeping and paid almost as much as an athlete's salary."

As Fletcher put it: "We played for the love of the game."

The Trail team was largely made up of locals - many of whom still live in the Trail area - and the pickups included Jackie McLeod of Saskatoon, Darryl Sly of Cambridge, Ont., and Montrealers Mike Legace and Claude Cyr. The coach was the hard-nosed Bobby Kromm, who not only whipped the team into shape but pioneered the idea of a practice on game day to get them sharp.

The Smokies - there's some debate whether the nickname came because of the huge smelter stack or because a fan disgruntled with a referee's call tossed a smoking corn cob pipe on the ice, which was taken up by several players - played 20 exhibition games before the world championship in Switzerland.

"The tour of Europe was in different conditions than you have for the pros now - the foods for one thing," Fletcher says. "We got up after landing in Oslo and there was herring for breakfast … herring! In Tampere [Finland]it was some kind of hotdogs. In Russia, it was supposed to be fried chicken, but I'm positive it was pigeons from off the sill. Thank God that in Moscow there was a U.S. embassy and they invited us over for hamburger and chips. You couldn't believe how good that was."

"We did the tour on rickety old airplanes and buses," adds McLeod, a pickup who scored twice in the decisive game, including the gold medal goal. "Everybody knew European hockey was getting better - and we wouldn't be world champions again for more than 30 years. I recall that maybe 3,000 of our servicemen were at the last game. And when we won it was something else."

The Smoke Eaters won five games and tied just one (against Czechoslovakia) going into their last match against Russia. The gold was to be decided by a differential of goals scored and goals against. The Czechs, who had the same won-loss record as the Canadians, had a two-goal edge in goals scored and were sitting in the stands, anticipating the presentation of the gold. They didn't believe Canada could win by enough goals over Russia to clinch the gold.

"The heat was on," recalls Dave Rusnell, another Smoke Eaters player. "It was Canada versus Russia, but it was a really small town against an entire land with an amazing number of players to draw from. That was an incentive - and the fact we weren't expected to do well. We had some of the best open-ice hitters I ever saw. In Sweden, we caught two of their national team players with their heads down and put them out for the rest of the year."

The Canadians used their brains as much as brawn. "We had three games in Moscow that helped us," Rusnell says. "We learned the Russians wanted to make the perfect shot. They might have the puck 65 per cent of the time, but Seth [Martin, the Trail goalie]always seemed to know where that last shot was coming from."

The Canadians may have been up against the communist system, says Smokies captain Cal Hockley, "but we had the team where everybody was equal, the same work ethic which Bobby [Kromm]drilled into us, the same drive."

He was a coach who made sure you were in the best condition in your life, so we outworked and outskated the Russians and Swedes every time."

The Smoke Eaters prevailed 5-1, giving them not only the victory over Russia but a big enough goals advantage to secure the gold.

"People will always wonder how a team from a town where eight or 10 of the players grew up together did it," Martin says. "We knew we couldn't just beat them by one, but we didn't actually know how many we had to win by. I remember the goals like it was yesterday: Harry Smith; Jackie McLeod; Harold Jones; McLeod again - it turned out to be the tournament winner, and Norm Lenardon with the insurance goal. "In Canada, people don't want to wind up second, they want to win the gold."

The population of Trail was about 15,000 at the time of the 1961 championship. An estimated 25,000 lined the route into town from the airfield at Castlegar, B.C., upon the Smokies return. "It was gratifying to see," Hockley says. "It brought out our opponents to cheer, guys we're played against in Nelson and Rossland and Spokane. I guess it was big."