Twelfth in a series of pioneer profiles
For much of the 1950s and ‘60s, whenever the Nelson Maple Leafs took a penalty, you could count on brothers Fritz and Red Kohele to kill it.
They were masters of exploiting the Civic Centre’s small ice with the four-man box. If an opposing player had the puck on the boards, they let him wait there as long as he wanted.
“I remember fans saying ‘Get him, get him, get him!’ and you’d just be standing there, because he didn’t know where to pass,” Fritz recalls.
One year, they scored more goals a man short than they allowed. There was even a rumour the NHL sent a scout to watch.
Fritz and Red were usually on the same line, and often had another brother, Gerry, in goal.
All were born in Regina but came west after their father, a sheet metal worker, got a job roofing Blaylock mansion and then landed work at the Trail smelter.
The four Koehle boys (pronounced KAY-lee) grew up in East Trail, skated on an outdoor rink at nearby Butler Park and played minor hockey in the old arena. Their father made their hockey pants, sharpened their skates, and spliced together broken sticks.
Called Frederick after his dad, Fritz received his nickname at an early age from his mother. Brother Ronald was called Red for his hair, while Robert was dubbed Brown Bear after wearing a furry cap and jacket to school one day. Only Gerry went by his given name.
In 1944, Fritz was the mascot (read stick boy) of the Trail junior team that made it to the Memorial Cup final. However, lack of funds meant he wouldn’t be able to go east with them.
In a move that still touches him, players went out and collected money to pay his way.
Fritz later went to Nanaimo to work and play junior hockey himself. By the time he came home, his family had moved to Nelson because Gerry was having health problems.
Fritz also played a year of junior in Wetaskiwin, but residency rules prevented him from appearing in the playoffs. Returning to Nelson, he became a senior hockey mainstay, skating with Don Appleton, Fred Hergerts, Wendy Keller, Bill Haldane and Gordie Howe’s brother Vic.
His greatest personal night was in 1960, when he scored five goals in a 12-1 rout of the powerhouse Trail Smoke Eaters. A year later, he was named the Western International Hockey League’s most valuable player.
His favourite Leafs team, however, was the one of 1953-54, coached by Willie Schmidt, which lost an infamous eight-game series to Penticton.
Nelson was up three games to one, with one tie, and needed only another tie to win — but instead lost three straight. Fans claimed the referees had been bought.
“We could have won just as easy as lost,” he says. “That was, I think, the year I loved best.”
It was also the league’s heyday, when fans would camp out for playoff tickets, rinks were packed beyond capacity, and players couldn’t walk down the street without someone calling their name.
After retiring to focus on the plumbing and heating business he and his father started, Koehle agreed to coach Nelson’s junior team. In his first year, 1967-68, they were undefeated and won the city’s only Cyclone Taylor Cup as provincial Junior B champions.
Kohele, 82, spent several more years behind the bench, but never repeated that early success.
“Win or lose, we still enjoyed it,” he says.
Previous installments in this series