Sweater a saviour

MURRAY GREIG -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 11:01 AM ET

Prior to the First World War, the Prairies, Ontario and Quebec were all established hotbeds of senior hockey. But the league that would go on to become the oldest continuous senior circuit in the country was organized in southeastern B.C. in 1903.

The West-Kootenay Boundary Hockey Association, which included teams in Trail, Rossland, Nelson, Grand Forks, Greenwood and Phoenix, was the first semi-professional circuit west of Ontario, with star players routinely earning as much as $250 per game for the 15-game schedule.

In 1919, the WKBHA was reincarnated as the Kootenay Hockey League, and by the mid-1920s it was recognized as the strongest senior loop in Canada.

In 1936 the KHL's Kimberley Dynamiters became the first team west of Regina to win the Allan Cup as Canada's top senior squad, and the following year they captured the world amateur championship in London, England.

BARNSTORMED

In 1938 the Trail Smoke Eaters won another Allan Cup for the KHL, then barnstormed through Europe for two months before outscoring their opposition 47-1 at the eight-game tournament in Switzerland to bring the league a second world title.

Dubbed the "Mountain Magicians" by the European press, the 1939 Smoke Eaters remain the only Canadian team to wear their club uniforms at the world tournament.

In 1942, the Second World War brought the senior game to an abrupt standstill in the Kootenays, but by the fall of 1945 the troops were coming home and hockey in Trail was returning to normal.

Along with the losses - Smoke Eater stalwarts Buck Buchanan and Sammy Saprunoff were killed in action, Joe Benoit and Bunny Dame had gone to the NHL, Mickey Brennen and Tom Johnston had retired - there were some inspiring homecomings.

Perhaps the most amazing was by Sammy Saprunoff's brother, Steve.

In a fitting tribute to Canada's Year of the Veteran, Steve Saprunoff, who died in Trail just six weeks ago, proudly related how his Smoke Eaters sweater helped save his life in the closing months of the war.

"I had been the Smoke Eaters' mascot and stick boy the year before they won the (1938) Allan Cup and went on to win the world championship," Saprunoff recalled in a telephone interview earlier this year.

"Those guys were my heroes, and they all treated me really well. When the season ended, my favourite player, Mickey Brennen, gave me his sweater - No. 5 - and it became my most prized possession. I wore it everywhere and only took it off to shower or sleep.

"I enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force a couple of years later, and in 1944, on my crew's 18th bombing mission over Berlin, we got shot down.

"As usual, I was wearing my Smoke Eaters sweater under my flight jacket when I bailed out. I was on the run for a couple of days until the Germans caught me, and then I was taken to a little holding cell in a compound with 30 or 40 other PoWs. I was really scared because by that time, the Germans were clearly losing the war. They didn't exactly have a lot of sympathy for the guys who were bombing their country day and night.

"Anyways, for the first couple of days in that compound, I wasn't given anything at all to eat. I also had a couple of broken ribs, so I was in pretty bad shape.

"Then, on the third or fourth day, an old guard came to my cell and told me to take off my flight jacket. When he saw my Smoke Eaters sweater, he got all excited and started going on and on in German about being a big hockey fan and how he had seen the Smokies play in Berlin on Christmas Day in 1938.

"He said he loved the way the Canadians played, and he even mentioned Jimmy Morris, who was his favourite player.

SHOCKED

"You just can't imagine how shocked I was to hear this old guy talking about my hometown hockey team! A few hours later he came back to my cell with a little bundle of bread and sausage; he actually smuggled it in for me.

''The same thing happened the next day and the day after that. He'd come to my cell, all smiles and talking in German about the Smoke Eaters, and then he'd slip me a little bundle of food.

"Well, let me tell you, that was really something. I couldn't believe my luck - and it was all because of Mickey Brennen's damned hockey sweater!

"After a week or so, the Germans moved the whole gang of us by train to a camp outside of Berlin, but before I left the old guy came to my cell one last time and gave me some apples and sausage and bread to tuck under my hockey sweater.

"Then he patted me on the shoulder and nodded and smiled.

"On the train I saw some of the guys from my unit, and they were really starving. When I pulled out the food, they were so happy they cried.

"I never saw that guard again, but I'll never forget how his face lit up when he saw that Smoke Eaters crest.

"We were liberated from the prison camp on VE-Day, and when I got back to Trail, I still had the sweater with me. I wore it until it was falling to pieces, then I cut off the crest and gave it to Jimmy Morris for a keepsake.

"I think my old German guard would have liked that."


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