Yes, yes. I know it’s summer out there and the weather is pretty darn hot so what better time to write about a cool sport? Hockey, no less. But no, I’m not going to write about the Kootenay Ice or Scott Niedermayer as deserving as they may be. So if you’re disappointed about that you can tune out now.
My topic is the recent passing of a Canadian (and personal) hockey hero whose ascent to that Great Rink in the Sky didn’t get the attention it deserved. He was the first Canadian hockey coach that realized the Russians were on to something and the first Canadian coach to defeat the Mighty Red Machine and win a world championship.
I’m talking about Trail Smoke Eaters coach Bobby Kromm, of course, who passed away from cancer in June at the age of 82 in Trail, the true “City of Champions” (forget about Edmonton).
Kromm was actually born in Calgary, but spent many of his storied hockey years in Trail coaching the iconic “Smokies” and is a symbol of Trail as much as the great smoke stack at the Cominco smelter on top of the “Hill” as Trailites call it. A gritty and tenacious centreman as well as a coach, Kromm played with his heart on his sleeve and expected no less from his players.
This wasn’t always appreciated and caused friction with some of the players he coached, but no one could doubt the effectiveness of his coaching methods. In 1961, he took a talented, but relatively inexperienced, group of players from Trail to the World Amateur Hockey Championship in Geneva defeating the mighty Russians 5 to 1 in the final game.
But the score, impressive as it was, doesn’t tell the whole story. What often gets overlooked is that in the previous year, the Smokies lost in the Allen Cup finals to the Chatham Maroons and weren’t supposed to go to the Worlds at all. But Chatham opted out of the World Tournament, choosing a European tour instead, and the Smokies were asked (reluctantly) by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association to go instead. The CAHA only offered the Smokies token financial support because they didn’t think the small town Trail team had a chance of winning. So Kromm and the team went door-to-door in the Smelter City and the rest, as they say, is history.
But there is more. What the Canadian hockey establishment didn’t understand at the time they so sorely underestimated Trail’s chances in Europe is that Kromm and the Smoke Eaters were one of the first Canadian hockey teams to ever play against the Russians. That occurred in 1958 when a Russian team toured Canada for the first time and played a game in Trail taking on the WIHL All Stars, which was loaded with Trail players. More than 5,000 fans jammed Cominco Arena that night (including yours truly sitting in the aisle) and the slick skating Russians scored first in one of the most memorable games ever with the home team winning 6 to 5 in the end.
Not that the score was that important. What was important was how the Russians played – the precision passing, smooth skating and incredible athleticism of the Russian players. Kromm watched it all and it wasn’t long before he had the Smoke Eaters working out in the Cominco Gym on the mats and the ropes. No hockey team in Canada was doing this sort of training at the time, including the NHL, but Kromm saw the value of it and he also saw the weaknesses in the Russian style that he exploited when Smokies winger Norm Lenardon poke-checked the puck away from a Russian defenceman and tucked the puck in the corner to win Trail its second World Amateur Hockey Championship, the only city in Canada to do so.
Small wonder that Kromm went on to successful coaching career in the NHL including coaching the then struggling Detroit Red Wings to their first playoff berth in eight years and being named NHL Coach of the Year. He also coached Bobby Hull and the Winnipeg Jets to an Avco Cup title in his first year in the World Hockey Association and was an assistant coach for Team Canada in the inaugural Canada Cup hockey series.
Quite a resume for a coach that began his career as a glass-blower at Cominco.
In my university years, I once ran into Kromm in front of the old Devonshire Hotel in Vancouver when he was coaching the Seattle Totems of the Western Hockey League. He didn’t know me from Adam, but he talked hockey with me for at least 10 minutes in front of the Dev. I was thrilled.
Bobby, they don’t make ‘em like you anymore. I truly miss you.