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Evel Knievel’s Kootenay connection

Updated: Jan 27

The best-known stuntman of the 1970s and maybe of all time has a little-known Kootenay connection. Robert (Evel) Knievel once played and coached his hometown hockey team against clubs from Trail and Creston.

Knievel grew up playing hockey in Butte, Montana. He played for his high school team from 1952-54, then for the intermediate Red Wings in 1954-55, and the intermediate Copperleafs in 1955-56 and 1957-58 (the team was inactive in 1956-57).

The Copperleafs, formed in 1953, played at the Butte Civic Center. Most of the roster consisted of homegrown players but there were a few imports. By the time Knievel joined them, they were no longer in an organized league, and it was not easy to find competition. Great Falls was the closest city with a team, two and a half hours away, so the Copperleafs looked north of the border.

The Butte Bombers of 1958-59 are seen in a photo hanging in a sports bar in Butte. Bob (Evel) Knievel is circled.

Top-flight senior teams in Trail, Nelson, and Rossland were busy playing in the WIHL, but Butte was able to attract some intermediate teams, including one from Creston called the Del-Macs. They came in 1955 to face a team from Missoula as well as an all-star Butte squad. Notably, Creston’s top line was made up of three Yaqan Nukiy (Lower Kootenay Band) players, identified in the Montana Standard only as J. Basil, F. Francais, and Z. Zachery and called “one of the flashiest” lines in amateur hockey.

In 1957-58, the Copperleafs hosted Creston twice (now known as the Canucks), losing 8-4 and 9-4. Knievel got into a fight with Creston’s Don Vigne in one of those games. A few words about Knievel as a player: he was a pretty good scorer, but his hotheadedness landed him in the penalty box frequently.

“He was decent,” teammate Tom McManus told author Leigh Montville for his 2011 book Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel. “On a scale of one to ten, he was a seven. But I’d trust him about as far as I could throw him. He was a real show-off, had to be the life of the party all the time.”

The Copperleafs finished the year with a record of 3-6-1. The following season, the Butte Bombers took their place, with many of the same players. At the outset a newspaper report said Knievel, then 19, was merely a player and assistant coach, but soon he was described as coach and general manager.

Montville’s book suggested Knievel played a bigger role still: “He was the owner, the coach, the starting centre. The start-up money … came from his father and grandfather, and … [a local] car dealership.”

The Bombers were described as a “semi-pro” team, which means they charged admission to their games and players were supposed to get $50 each. “We never got paid too often,” winger Tubie Johnson told Montville, “but I remember a couple of good meals.”

The Butte Civic Center is seen here around the time it opened in 1952. (Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives 02.181.01-06)

Neither the Copperleafs nor Bombers played often, sometimes going weeks between games. The Copperleafs had 10 matches in 1957-58, the same number as the Bombers in 1958-59. The Bombers played 12 times in 1959-60. I suspect that again reflects the difficulty of securing competition. I don’t know if visiting teams were promised a share of ticket revenue or otherwise compensated for their travel expenditures.

In 1957, games were said to be in the works against Great Falls, Fairchild Air Force Base, Salt Lake City, Creston, Seattle, and Spokane. In 1959, games were supposedly being arranged with clubs from Trail, Rossland, Nelson, Creston, Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Fernie, Medicine Hat, Coleman, Great Falls, Salt Lake, Spokane, Denver, and even Toronto. A later history also suggested they played teams from North Dakota, Minnesota, Sudbury, and Moose Jaw. Yet most of them never set skate in Butte.

The actual teams Butte faced in 1957-58 were limited to the local School of Mines Orediggers (four times), the Salt Lake City Icelanders, Creston Canucks, and Great Falls Americans (twice each). In 1958-59, Butte played Creston three times, Great Falls twice, Salt Lake twice, the Trail Rockets twice (about whom, more in a moment), and a badly-depleted Seattle Americans squad once. In 1959-60, they took on the Calgary Buffaloes four times, Trail, Salt Lake, and Great Falls twice each, the School of Mines once, plus one very unusual opponent I will tell you about later.

In addition, Butte hardly ever played on the road. Of the 32 games alluded to above, only two were away games, both in Great Falls. At one point a four-state tour was announced that would take the Bombers to Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Albuquerque and Oklahoma City, but it did not happen. Consequently, while Knievel faced teams from Trail and Creston, he never visited either place as far as I can tell.

Interior of the Butte Civic Center, 1950s. (Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives

While it is entirely possible things fell apart due to scheduling conflicts or lack of funds, it is worth noting that nothing Knievel ever said can be taken at face value. In this context at least, he may not have been so much a chronic liar as an eternal optimist, convinced of his own far-fetched plans. “He was the biggest bullshitter in the world,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t believe a thing he’d say.”

Lacking the ability to be picky about competition also meant parity was hard to achieve. Butte was on both the winning and losing ends of extremely lopsided scores. In 1957-58, the Copperleafs beat the local School of Mines Orediggers 8-4, 9-4 and 17-7. But they also lost to Great Falls 20-5 and 14-8 (and the latter was only after Great Falls loaned them some players).

Butte’s first game of the 1958-59 season was against Creston, led by playing coach Cal Beebe. Butte came from behind to win 8-6 before a crowd of about 1,000. Among those on Creston’s roster: Gordon Benz, Mick Huscroft, and goalie Frank Kranabetter. Knievel had a Gordie Howe hat trick and then some that night: two goals, an assist, a fight, and a roughing minor.

Meanwhile, the Trail Rockets formed around 1955 and dominated John Paolone’s Sunday Morning Hockey League while also barnstorming to non-hockey hotbeds like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Albuquerque.

Albuquerque Journal, Feb. 3, 1957

According to the Albuquerque Journal of Feb. 22, 1958:

The pro [sic] Rockets are studded with talent. Leading scorer is Leo Mailey, centre, who has played for the Seattle Ironmen of the Pacific Coast League and the Chicago farm club. Coach Paddy McCabe is a high-scoring defenseman who played for the Edmonton squad. Forward Jack McIntyre has seen duty with the Nelson Maple Leafs.

But in their first meetings in January 1959, Butte beat Trail 7-4 and 6-5. Both games were marred by unsportsmanlike behavior toward on-ice officials. In the first game, Rockets coach McCabe hit a referee. In the rematch, Knievel did the same after receiving a major penalty. He later publicly apologized.

(In 2020, I asked the late Owen Mailey, who played for the Rockets, about Knievel. He did not surprise me a bit when he replied: “We thought he was sort of a show-off.”)

Another bizarre incident occurred a few weeks later when thieves broke into a locker room at the Butte Civic Center and made off with $420 in cash, a watch, and a cheque for $202 from the Seattle Americans.

Butte finished the season with a much improved record of 8-2-0, with their only losses coming at the gloves of Creston and Great Falls.

In April 1959, Knievel announced tentative plans for Butte to serve as a farm club of the Spokane Flyers, then a pro team in the WHL. Butte would play in the WIHL against Rossland, Trail, Nelson, and possibly Great Falls. But none of it happened. Possibly it was just another one of his fantasies.

The following season Knievel was named president of the Bombers and promised they would be “at least 25 per cent stronger.” Knievel’s wife Linda would fill in as a practice goalie and appeared in uniform in a newspaper photo.

Montana Standard, Feb. 7, 1960

The Bombers opened against the Trail Rockets. The Rockets won 7-6 thanks to a hat trick by Vern Aikin and followed it up with a 7-5 victory due to a four-goal outburst by George McIntyre.

Both the highlight and lowlight of the Butte Bombers’ existence was a game against the Czechoslovakian national team on Feb. 7, 1960 as they prepared for the Olympics in California that month. Hosting the Czechoslovaks was a consolation prize after Knievel failed to secure the Russian team due to the Bombers’ perceived lack of competitiveness. Nevertheless, the game drew 2,000 fans, the biggest Butte crowd ever to see a hockey game. They witnessed Czechoslovakia destroy the home team 22-3. The shots were 91-24.

“The score could have been 105-0 if the Czechs wanted,” Tubie Johnson said. “They were kind to us.”

Montana Standard, Feb. 7, 1960

An amusing and oft-told — but presumably apocryphal — story emerged from this game. Allegedly, between periods Knievel asked for donations to help defray the expenses of hosting the Czechoslovak delegation, which he claimed was twice as large as expected. Buckets were passed around the rink and filled with cash.

In the third period, Knievel was tossed from the game. By one version of this story, when Czechosovakian officials later went to collect the money they were promised, they were told it had been stolen. In another, Knievel insisted on being presented with receipts before he would pay. Either way, the US Olympic committee was left on the hook for the team’s expenses, which Knievel later admitted to stealing.

The story, however, was not reported in the press at the time and only appeared in Knievel biographies many years later. (One account conflated the earlier locker room burglary with this incident, while another had a masked bandit stealing the gate receipts and fleeing by helicopter.)

Furthermore, a check of the game summary shows Knievel was not ejected. In fact, the third period was penalty-free. Knievel received boarding minors in each of the first two periods, but that was it.

The Bombers concluded their season, and their existence, with a game against the Montana School of Mines in what was billed as the “city hockey championship.” With a severely depleted roster, they lost 11-8. Over two seasons, the Bombers compiled a record of 11-11-0. Years later, however, Knievel claimed they went undefeated except for the loss to the Czech team, which he blamed on the referees!

The last mention of the Bombers spoke volumes about their finances: a default court judgement for $247 was registered against Knievel by a printing firm, one of the team’s creditors. The following year the Butte Bruins took the Bombers’ place. Knievel was not involved. In December 1960, he reportedly received an offer to play for Great Falls but declined “because of other commitments.”

I have compiled some of Knievel’s playing statistics, presented here for the first time. Several caveats: the source of all of the info is the Montana Standard, which usually presented game summaries or detailed game stories, but not always. In two games (Jan. 9 and Feb. 14, 1960), the scorers of six goals combined were not accounted for.

Assists were not always reported and were handed out sparingly in any case. For instance, the Copperleafs scored 17 goals against School of Mines on Jan. 23, 1958 yet only six assists were awarded in all. Conversely, scorer Frank Quinn, who doubled as the Standard’s hockey writer, awarded three assists per goal on at least two occasions, something the NHL stopped doing in 1937. In any event, Knievel was probably not robbed of many assists, for teammates said he was a puck hog and rarely passed. Penalties were not always reported either. In that department Knievel may have had more than I have credited him with.

A word here about Quinn, who was legendary in Butte journalism and had some interesting vocabulary quirks. He habitually referred to the periods of each game as cantos, chukkers, and quarters — the latter in defiance of its definition as one-fourth of something. I had to look up the other two terms. A canto is a division of a long poem. A chukker is a period of play in polo.

Quinn also noted own goals in his summaries, something I wish all leagues would do, and only reluctantly credited the last player on the other team to touch the puck as the scorer. One such incident occurred on Jan. 11, 1958. Quinn wrote: “The next Creston goal was made as result of one of those oddities which often occur in hockey. Bob Knievel, center for the Leafs, during a scramble around the Creston goal, inadvertently assisted the Canadian club. The shot by M. Huscroft bounced off Knievel’s skate into the net.”

Anyway, here are Knievel’s stats. I have not yet compiled his first three seasons.

To provide some additional context, in 1957-58 Knievel was third on his team in goals and fourth in points. In 1958-59, he was first in goals and second in points. In 1959-60, he was third in both goals and points. In all three seasons, however, he was tops in penalty minutes by a wide margin. In fact, he accounted for nearly half the minutes of his entire team (97 of a total of 199 minutes)!

This brings me to a final point about Knievel’s hockey career. Notwithstanding what his teammates thought, he believed he was good enough to turn pro. The Montana Standard of Sept. 16, 1958 reported: “Knievel, the assistant coach, who was to receive another professional tryout with the Seattle Totems team this fall, decided to remain in Butte.”

I could not find any other reference to his first tryout. Some biographers have dismissed these instances, though, as further examples of Knievel’s fabulism. Leigh Montville writes: “Little self-placed stories ... appeared in the Montana Standard about how different minor league teams coveted his services, but the final paragraph always noted that he had decided to stay with the Bombers.” If there are other examples, I have not found them.

However, it is true Knievel had a connection to the pro Charlotte Checkers of the Eastern Hockey League. Depending on how the story was spun, he either played one season for them, or part of one season, or merely some exhibition games. The truth is he was invited to their training camp in September 1959, but we can’t say for certain if he even made it there much less saw any action. How they heard about him is a matter of conjecture, since few scouts would have been likely to show up to watch an independent team in Montana. But Knievel was a master of self-promotion.

Here are the smoking guns. First, from the Charlotte News of Sept. 30, 1959, which revealed the camp was not held in North Carolina (Horeck is playing coach Peter Horeck):

While it was more than 1,000 kilometers from Charlotte, Chatham seems to have been picked as the site for the camp because Horeck’s brother John was general manager of the Chatham Maroons.

Frank Quinn also mentioned the Knievel tryout in his column in the Montana Standard on Oct. 11, 1959:

Some have taken this to mean Knievel had earned a spot on the team, but there is no sign of him in any of the coverage I have reviewed of the camp.

The same day the Charlotte Observer, which had a reporter in Chatham, wrote:

Newcomers already announced by Horeck include defensemen Pete Pilotte and Jerry Ordrowski, centres Jimmy Maxwell and Moe Savard, and Horeck, himself will play a wing. Otherwise help will come from an uncertain assemblage of new faces at training camp; castoffs from the team coached by Horeck’s brother in the Senior Ontario League; and two players promised Charlotte by the Boston Bruins.

Two days later the Observer added: “While rookies are spilling out of the runways of the Chatham arena ... the scrimmage showed but one or two who could be considered as having a good chance.” One of those players was said to be Nick Murray, who did make the team but only played six games.

The Clippers played an exhibition game against St. Thomas on Oct. 13, a 4-4 tie. No mention of Knievel. Another planned match against the Windsor Bulldogs on Oct. 20 was cancelled. But by that time Knievel had already returned home. Here is Frank Quinn again in the Montana Standard of Oct. 18:

Didn’t want to travel! Maybe that explains while the Butte Bombers never played road games. More likely this was an excuse for Knievel getting cut from camp, if he even made it there. At most, he may have appeared in a single exhibition game for the Clippers, but even that is questionable.

On a trip to Butte this year, I discovered the Metals sports bar displays a team photo of the 1958-59 Bombers, seen at the top of this page. And in the former city jail, where Knievel apparently got his nickname, there’s another photo of him in a hockey uniform, seen below.

Further reading: “Evel Knievel: Daredevil, Promoter, Hockey Player,” by Bill Sproule in the Hockey Research Journal, September 2020

Updated on Jan. 11, 2024 to add Knievel’s stats and a whole whack of other information. Updated on Jan. 17, 2024 to add the photos of the Butte Civic Center.

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