The Trail Senior Smoke Eaters Christmas reunion banquet has been called off.
For more than two decades, Wayne Florko has organized an annual brunch for former Trail Sr. Smoke Eaters who played in the Western International Hockey League (WIHL) that ran from 1946 to 1988.
Unfortunately, says Florko, due to pandemic restrictions against public gatherings, the annual dinner has been cancelled.
“Hopefully, next year when conditions are better and everybody is healthy then we’ll pick up again and continue on.”
Held at Cantons Restaurant for many years, the Sr. Smoke Eaters informal get-together gave players a rare chance to meet, share stories and reminisce about the golden years of senior men’s hockey.
This year would have been significantly more poignant with the passing of ‘61 Smoke Eaters captain Cal Hockley on Dec. 10, and Harry Smith earlier in the year.
“There’s no more league, but in particular the ‘61ers, they have brought so much to this community with their success and stuff, you hate to lose good people like Cal,” said Florko. “I have a lot of good memories of him, and sitting and talking with him while watching Sammy Swanson play for the Nitehawks.”
Florko began playing for the Sr. Smoke Eaters in 1970, and had the opportunity to play with a number of players from the ‘61 team including Smith, Pinoke McIntyre, George Ferguson, and Norm Lenardon.
The annual Christmas brunch ritual began early on with only a handful of former Senior Smoke Eaters, attending. Florko soon put out an invitation and anyone who played in the WIHL was welcome to attend.
“It began with just three or four guys going for lunch,” said Florko. “But they called me one time, and I went and it was really good. So I took it over, and thought, ‘Why are we just being a selected group? Why don’t we just get all the guys?’”
The brunches average between 60 and 70 players, representative of five decades of Sr. Smoke Eaters hockey, and offer a different program every year.
“The ‘61’s always sit together at the same table, and Cal has been a speaker at this quite a few times too,” added Florko.
“I’ll be calling a lot of the guys and wish them a Merry Christmas, but in light of the guidelines, this is what we have to do.”
The WIJHL was comprised of teams from Trail, Rossland, Nelson, Fernie, and Cranbrook as well as Calgary, Spokane, Portland and Los Angeles playing in the league at various times throughout its history.
In an era when there were fewer NHL and minor professional teams and leagues in North America, winning the WIHL Shore-Montgomery Trophy (named after celebrities Dinah Shore and George Montgomery) was a difficult challenge, and the Allan Cup national championship trophy, a coveted prize.
The WIHL was considered among the best amateur hockey in North America. The caliber of play was excellent and many top CHL, Junior A, university and pro-level players went on to compete for WIHL teams.
Trail won the WIHL championship’s Shore-Montgomery Cup seven times in 1948, ‘51, ‘52, ‘60, ‘62, ‘79, and ‘83.