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Kootenay Hockey History: The WIHL, the Cranbrook Royals, and Ron Huston

Anthony Dransfeld looks back on a legendary generation of hockey players
Ron Huston of the California Golden Seals in action against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

By Anthony Dransfeld

With a new hockey season soon upon us, and a brand-new junior team in town called the Cranbrook Bucks ready to lace ‘em up at the Rec Plex, it’s a good time to remember our hockey roots.

Hockey has been played in and around Cranbrook since the early 1900s. Lumberton, Wycliffe, Fort Steele, Jaffray, Canal Flats, and Wasa Lake all had teams. Ostensibly it was pond hockey, played by the boys who worked at the Sawmills back in the day.

Back in 1965 a new hockey team began. They were a Senior A.A.A. Club called the Cranbrook Royals.

But prior to that: The Western International Hockey League (WIHL.) started playing in 1947. The Consolidated Mining and Smelting (Cominco) in Kimberley spared no expense bringing in elite hockey players, many of whom were professionals, or had recently been. The team was called the Kimberley Dynamiters.

The hockey players were given houses rent-free, excellent paying jobs, wages for the day of the game, and travel wages. Generally speaking, this was a better financial situation than many pro players who toiled in the American Hockey League and the Western Hockey League where long tedious bus trips were the norm.

The Trail Smoke Eaters were also a Cominco team. They too spared no expense catering to their players. Of course, the WIHL had some established stars by then. Kimberley had Walter Peacosh, Les Lilley, Ken “Cowboy” McTeer, Dickie Vincent, Wally Souter, Paul Sinclair, Bobby Wardle, Ed Babiuk, Sonny Perkinson (Perky ), Terry Campeau, Marcel Mongrain, Rheo Touzin, Ken Dietrich, Ken Willey, Wayne King, Danny Perih, Dennis Schick, and the fearless “Tiger” Bill Steenson — the only player I know of who was first Team All American in three consecutive years with the University of North Dakota.

Another truly great one was centre Billy McLelland. A skill level off the charts.

The Trail Smoke Eaters had their own stable of star players left over from the 1961 World Championship Team. Harry Smith ( just passed away), Dave Rusnell, Gary Ferro, Reno Zanier (goalie), Adolph Tambellini, Cal Hockley, Don Fletcher, Norm Lenarden, Johnny Thompson, and my friend Seth Martin, an Olympic Medalist, and NHL goaltender with the St. Louis Blues. Seth was literally as popular in Europe, as Wayne Gretzky was here in Canada.

The Nelson Maple Leafs had the mercurial Murray Owens, Howie Hornby, Leroy Mowry, Buck Crawford, Brian Russell, Hughie Hooker, Patty Laughton and his brother Mike Laughton who went to the NHL himself from Nelson (California Golden Seals), and their superb eccentric goaltender Jimmy Letcher.

So, the League was not without their stars, not forgetting Spokane, who had some good ones of their own. Tommy Rendell, Larry Palanio, George Talotti, David Toner, Gordon Turlik, my friend “Chowser, “ Jimmy Chow (passed), Peter Leiman — an effortless skating D-Man — and Tom “ The Bomb “ Hodges who used his stick much like a surgeon’s scalpel.

Ron “Spike” Huston of the Cranbrook Royals eclipsed them all on sheer ability, during the time he played here in the WIHL. At 5 foot 10 and 160 pounds, Huston was not a huge physical presence, but when you can skate like Bobby Orr, have a deadly accurate shot, with a quick release, good things happen. As someone once remarked, Boston Bruins got Orr. Cranbrook got Spike Huston, who clearly was that much better than anyone in the League when he arrived from Brandon.

The Royals quickly arranged an Electrical Apprenticeship for Huston at the Skookumchuck Pulp Mill, a trade Ron still is doing here locally. Ron and his wife Beckie have resided here in Cranbrook for many years.

Half a century ago, the Cranbrook Royals Senior A hockey team held their first training camp at the Cranbrook Arena, after gaining admittance to the WIHL. The Royals were formed through the efforts of Frank Spring Sr., Bob Hockley, Dr. Jerry Wiebe, Al Fleck ,Tiny Spooner, the Downey Brothers (Vince and Joe), and the Kennelly Lumber Company (Jim).

The Kimberley Dynamiters, Trail Smoke Eaters, Spokane Jets, Nelson Maple Leafs and the Rossland Warriors made up the League, which at one time included the Los Angeles Ramblers, the Portland Buckaroos, and Fernie.

A few 20-year-old players from the Brandon Wheat Kings made their way to the Cranbrook tryouts. Ron “Spike” Huston, Eddie Maher, Lyn Beaton, Leon “Gringo” Garinger, “Muggsie “ McGowan, goaltender trainer Bill DeLuca, and Larry Bedard came from Thunder Bay. Not much was known about them, scouting was basically non-existent in those days.

Leo Ressler from Taber, and Barry “Moose” Mackay, the goaltender, came to town a bit later, with Herb Grey Eyes (Felix Lavalee was an excellent hockey player who came here in a trade with the Spokane Jets).

Billy Martin (the all-time leading goal scorer in the WIHL when the dust had settled with 435 goals), and Martin’s linemate from Trail, the formidable Ed LeGare.

The late Wally Chernenko broke his ankle at the Toronto Maple Leaf training camp, got cut and somehow found his way to Cranbrook.

The Royals started to gain some traction. Goalies Danny Sullivan, Leo Karchie and Wayne Doll came to Cranbrook later.

The Western International Hockey League had significant respect in Canada. It was not amateur hockey. In reality it was a pro league. The Spokane Jets packed their Coliseum every game with 5,000 fans. The Cranbrook Royals sold out the arena for every game, partly because Cranbrook love their hockey, and they had a 20-year-old superstar in Ron Huston. Huston would go on to do great things in hockey, winning the Most Valuable Player Award (Called the Howard Anderson Trophy) four times in four seasons, two Allan Cups, the leading all time goalscorer in Allan Cup history, and subsequently winning the Rookie of the Year in the Western Hockey League with 42 goals and 42 Assists for Salt Lake City Golden Eagles, joining his coach from Spokane, Al Rollins.

Huston spent two seasons in the Western Hockey League before joining the California Golden Seals in the National Hockey League. After jumping to the World Hockey Association with the Phoenix Road Runners, Huston spent a few seasons in the desert, before the Roadrunners went belly up.

The Road Runners sold Huston’s contract to the Indianapolis Racers, a new team in the WHA, who had the idea of pairing Huston with a 17-year-old rookie in camp named Wayne Gretzky. Huston, representing himself (no agent) in the contract negotiations, was $1,000 apart with Indy, and could not do a deal. So Ron returned to Spokane, for more money, rejoining the Jets.

He eventually returned to the Royals after pro hockey, taking up his trade in Cranbrook as an electrician.

Veteran hockey people in the region all say the same thing about Ron Huston: “The best hockey player to ever come here.”

The Cranbrook Royals started from nothing in ’65 and attained amateur hockey supremacy in Canada by winning the Allan Cup in 1982 (as hard to win as the Stanley Cup).

Veteran hockey men in Cranbrook who either played with or watched Huston perform: Derek Spring, Frank Spring Jr., Danny Spring, Marvin Ferg, Dickie Bird, Dale “Sammy” McMullen , Peter Leiman, Richard Neil, Jack Kershaw, Murray Whyte, Dennis Whyte, Rick Allen, Kenny Bridge, Colin Patterson, Frank Farentino, Greg Pascuzzo, David Neil, Murray English, Byron English, Wayne Price, Al Jobe, Al Patterson, Alan Wong (passed), Raymond Dube, Robbie Taylor, Bob and Don Murdoch, Leo Ressler, Felix Lavallee, Herb Grey Eyes, Eddie Maher, Greg Coldwell, Eddie LeGare, Billy Martin, Bobby” Puffer” Muir, Art Bryant, Chico Mackie, Barry “Moose” MacKay, Pencil MacKay, Lurch MacKay, Johnny Hudak, Bob “ Nizer” James, Barry Byram, Ray Goss, ) and Larry “Barney” Bedard.

Run into one of these hockey guys at a Bucks game, and ask them what kind of player Spike Huston was for the Cranbrook Royals.