1961 Trail Smoke Eaters - World Hockey Champions

1961 Trail Smoke Eaters - World Hockey Champions

Building ‘Trophy Town’: A Home of Champions story

Filmmakers visit Trail to create upcoming documentary on world champion ‘39 and ‘61 Smoke Eaters

Legends aren’t born, they are made, built like a wall, one brick at a time.

More than 80 years have passed since the 1939 Trail Smoke Eaters won the World Hockey Championship, but they and their 1961 Smoke Eater counterparts will have the caps put on their respective stories in an upcoming documentary entitled, Trophy Town: Local Heroes, International Legends.

“I kind of look at this as a David and Goliath story repeating itself,” said director/producer Robert Barrett. “These guys came from this exotic, beautiful, and remote place in Canada and in my mind they went overseas and kicked the baddest asses on the block in both cases.”

Related read: City salutes Smoke Eaters: Even marks 50 years since Trail won world title

The gold-medal wins by the ‘39 and ‘61 Smoke Eaters in Europe are well known to Silver City residents, but not necessarily common knowledge across Canada and beyond. The Toronto filmmakers, comprised of Barrett, writer/producer Dave Alexander, and cinematographer/cameraman David Cain, are trying to change all that and revisited Trail last month as part of their quest to share the unique and incredible stories with the rest of the world.

“Everyone has been so ultra-supportive here, when they find out what we’re doing,” said Barrett. “We’ve been to all the restaurants – the Colander, the Arlington, the Beer Refinery – the bakery, the hotel, everywhere so our whole journey and stay here has been wonderful.”

The documentarians also enjoyed a Trail Smoke Eaters game first hand, and attended the Trail vs Nanaimo Clippers tilt on Oct. 18, a match that drew more than 2,400 fans.

“Hockey in Trail is like ‘Friday night lights’, where football in the states is everything, in Canada it’s hockey. I was really impressed and felt emotional about being there on Friday night, and seeing families getting together and old timers having a beer, shooting the breeze, and watching hockey, and kids in the stands dancing and being silly. It’s a community centre, it’s the hub of Trail. So how do you place value on that?”

The assistance of the Silver City’s curator Sarah Benson-Lord and videographer Eric Gonzalez have been indispensable for the making of Trophy Town, as have the many players, coaches, wives and Trail residents interviewed.

The 90-minute film will feature the Smoke Eaters’ stories, but also a variety of topics that include its rich sporting legacy, the landscape and the people that contributed to make Trail, The Home of Champions.

“There’s worm-holes left, right, and centre that we go down and we explore and that’s what kind of gives it texture,” said Barrett. “Any time you’re making a film you’re looking for texture and perspectives and this thing’s loaded with that.”

The crew met with members of the ‘61 Smoke Eaters at the Rex Hotel last month, celebrating Norm Lenardon’s 86th birthday over a beer, with two cameras on hand to document the memorable event.

“These guys are blue-collar, humble, hard working guys who like to have a beer, they are full of humility, quiet and confident … but they are dragon slayers.”

Barrett first conjured the idea of a documentary after talking to his friend, Stephen Sweeting, who had visited Trail to appraise its museum’s collection in Sept. 2018. Sweeting was so impressed with the sporting archives and excess of Trail sporting awards, he told Barrett. The more the director and his writer looked at it, the more the rich colours and texture of Trail’s history revealed itself.

“We became intrigued, and as a filmmaker, it sounds like it’s got good bones to be able to tell a story,” said Barrett. “The more myself and my writer started exploring it as a story and digging more, it had all these crazy twists and turns and all these amazing characters.”

Related read: Putting a price on priceless pieces of Trail history

Longtime Trail historian, John D’Arcangelo, author of the anthology A Trail to Remember, was also interviewed alongside Terry Brennan, whose father Mickey played on the ‘39 Smoke Eaters.

“I think it’s an excellent idea,” said D’Arcangelo. “I think it’s overdue, and I’m glad they’re doing this because it’s a remarkable story, both teams.”

The ‘39 Smoke Eaters played 72 games in Europe, in the months leading up to the second World War. They defeated Nazi Germany twice in Berlin in games that had Swastikas decorating flags and programs. In 1961, Trail faced off against the Soviet Union’s Red Army team at the height of the Cold War, and beat them soundly.

“It’s a huge feat,” added Barrett. “They’re playing against trained soldiers. These (Trail) guys worked in a plant by day, and scored goals at night.”

The Smoke Eaters legacy and influence goes well beyond the bounds of southeastern BC and D’Arcangelo and Brennan were integral in fleshing out additional storylines for the filmmakers.

In particular, that of Trail WWII pilot Steve Saprunoff, whose Smoke Eaters sweater that was given to him by Mickey Brennan, may have saved his life.

A former mascot and stick-boy for the Smoke Eaters, Saprunoff’s plane was shot down over Germany in 1944, and the young man became a prisoner of war. His fate changed when a German prison guard noticed the Smoke Eaters jersey he wore under his flight jacket for luck.

The guard was a huge hockey fan and had watched the Smoke Eaters play Team Germany in Berlin in December of 1938. He smuggled food to Saprunoff, who survived the ordeal and returned to Trail after the war.

Another Trail hockey figure, Mike Buckna, became the father of Czech hockey and coached the Czech national team, the only team to score against Trail at the ‘39 championship.

“(Anatoli) Tarasov, the father of Russian hockey, called the ‘39 Smoke Eaters one of the greatest teams, amateur or professional he’s ever seen, and he patterned his team after their style of teamwork, passing and possession of the puck,” added D’Arcangelo.

“The inspiring story of Trail is just remarkable, when you consider it’s only made up of about 10,000 people. What a team can do with a hard work ethic and team play and pride and confidence.”

The accomplishments are considerable, considering that many of the Trail players were Cominco employees with families, who played senior hockey more for enjoyment than a grasp at fame or fortune.

“That compounds it, they worked a whole shift at Cominco which wouldn’t be easy, and then go and practice,” said D’Arcangelo. “And in the case of Bobby Kromm, I was around in those days watching their practices, he worked them diligently. He worked them into great condition and Normy (Lenardon) told me in the final game against the Russians going into that third period they felt confident they could hold on and win because they were in great shape.”

The additional interviews are many and varied, and include talking to ‘61 Smoke Eater goalie Seth Martin’s wife Bev, who offered an insightful perspective from the spouses. Barrett also had the pleasure of interviewing Olympian Gordie Robertson before he passed, former Trail Times editors Bruce Hogle and Murray Grieg, and Trail native and former NHLer Cesare Maniago.

“It’s a very much Canadian story,” said Barrett. “The ‘39 and ‘61 Smokies are our two pillar pieces within it. All the other pieces will get woven into the historical winds, adventures, and journeys.”

The documentary is expected to be completed next year, with hopes of playing at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“I think it’s one of the most amazing stories in Canada.”



sports@trailtimes.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Sports broadcaster and 30-year high school football coach Farhan Lalji. (Image via farhanlalji.com)
Farhan Lalji chats about the new B.C. high school sports governance proposal

Lalji, a 30-year high school football coach, thinks the new proposal will be bad for student athletes

Surrey city Councillor Brenda Locke. (File photo)
Surrey councillor trying to get policing referendum on the table, again

‘I’m sending it back for clarification,’ mayor decides

A simulation lab at Surrey Memorial Hospital has been helping healthcare professionals train during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted photo)
Surrey Memorial Hospital’s simulation lab trains professionals during COVID-19 pandemic

Surrey Hospitals Foundation contributing $100K toward new technologies

Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks about the province’s COVID-19 vaccine plans during a news conference at the legislature in Victoria. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Dr. Bonnie Henry says Surrey immunization targeted at neighbourhoods most at risk

‘What we’ve been looking at is the case rates by neighbourhood,’ provincial health officer says

A horse and driver cruise around the track at Fraser Downs in Cloverdale Sept. 14, 2020 amid smoke from U.S. forest fires. Harness Racing B.C. announced it’s halting the spring season two weeks early because of a lack of money and says racing won’t continue in September without and influx of cash. (Photo: Malin Jordan)
Harness racing suspended at Fraser Downs

Spring season ends early, 135 workers out of jobs

Rainbow trouts thrashing with life as they’re about to be transferred to the largest lake of their lives, even though it’s pretty small. These rainbows have a blue tinge because they matched the blue of their hatchery pen, but soon they’ll take on the green-browns of their new home at Lookout Lake. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
VIDEO: B.C. lake stocked with hatchery trout to delight of a seniors fishing club

The Cherish Trout Scouts made plans to come back fishing soon

Nick Warmerdam and his dog Diesel are inviting locals to check out the Lakeland Farm U-pick Flower Farm this spring. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)
VIDEO & SLIDESHOW: Abbotsford’s Lakeland Flowers opens for spring

Tulip farm attraction opened on April 14, open to the public daily seven days a week

Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops. (Dave Eagles/Kamloops This Week file photo)
RCMP intercept vehicle fleeing with infant taken from Kamloops hospital

The baby was at the hospital receiving life-saving care

The female driver of this Jeep Grand Cherokee (right) was driving erratically with a young child inside on Highway 1 eastbound. After hitting a barrier and a parked car, she finally exited the highway at Yale Road West and came to a stop. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Video captures woman driving erratically with child after hitting barrier, car on Hwy 1 in Chilliwack

Smoke seen coming from SUV as it continues to travel eastbound of shoulder of highway

Former Pitt Meadows city councillor David Murray was convicted of sex assault, and is now being sued by the victim. (files)
Former Pitt Meadows city councillor sued for sex assault

David Murray was convicted in 2017 of sexually assaulting a teen 25 years earlier

Vancouver Police Const. Deepak Sood is under review by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. after making comments to a harm reduction advocate Sunday, April 11. (Screen grab)
VIDEO: Vancouver officer convicted of uttering threats under watchdog review again

Const. Deepak Sood was recorded Sunday saying ‘I’ll smack you’ and ‘go back to selling drugs’ to a harm reduction advocate

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry prepares a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic, April 21, 2020. (B.C. Government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate persists, 1,005 new cases Friday

Hospitalization up to 425, six more virus-related deaths

The Nautical Dog Cafe at Skaha marina is getting its patio ready in hopes Mother Nature will provide where provincial restrictions have taken away indoor dining. (Facebook)
‘A lot of instability’: B.C. restaurants in layoff limbo

As COVID-19 cases stay high, restaurants in British Columbia are closed to indoor dining

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Expectations high as Trudeau Liberals get ready to unveil first pandemic budget

The Liberals will look to thread an economic needle with Monday’s budget

Most Read