James Leo Pilla
Born: November 1, 1935 (Humboldt, Saskatchewan)
Died: October 28, 2014 (Trail, British Columbia)
Jim Pilla was a diminutive hockey forward who did not allow a lack of size to diminish his reputation as a pugnacious opponent.
The 5-foot-8, 165-pound right winger engaged in several stick-swinging duels in his career, including a particularly vicious episode during an exhibition game in what would be his final professional game.
He was coached by Ken Ullyot and his teammates on the Mintos included future NHL centre Orland Kurtenbach and future NHL coach Tom McVie.
Pilla, nicknamed The Jet, scored four goals in a 16-1 blowout of the Melville Millionaires on Jan. 3, 1956.
Later that season, the Mintos were involved in an end-of-game, on-ice brawl in Flin Flon, Man., during which coach Ullyot’s assault on the referee was stopped when he was grabbed by players and the organist began playing “God Save the Queen.” After the anthem ended, the donnybrook resumed, and an RCMP constable was bruised after being struck in the face with a stick.
In his final season with the Mintos, Pilla scored 16 goals and added 15 assists in 41 games. (He also played a single game with the Saskatoon Quakers of the Western Hockey League, during which he was assessed a minor penalty.)
Pilla spent four seasons with the Nelson (B.C.) Maple Leafs of the Western International Hockey League. His most productive season came in 1956-57, when he scored 18 goals in 48 games. He also managed to spend 102 minutes in the penalty box.
He joined the Victoria Cougars of the WHL for five games late in the 1957-58 season under playing coach Pat Egan. Pilla’s lone goal was scored against Joe Pelletier in a losing effort in Vancouver as the Cougars fell 5-4 to the hometown Canucks.
Pilla spent the 1957-58 season in the International Hockey League with the Troy (N.Y.) Bruins and Indianapolis Chiefs. He also skated in two games for the Philadelphia Ramblers of the Eastern Hockey League.
He returned to Nelson, where he had several notorious fights, including a slashing duel with Buddy Bodman of the Spokane Chiefs, which got them both suspended.
Pilla’s final game was a midsummer exhibition in Nelson in 1962 against the arch-rival Trail Smoke Eaters. Pilla was slashed on the hip by Trail’s Russ Kowalchuk, who broke his stick. Pilla retaliated with his stick.
“Kowalchuk passed out and was carried from the ice on a stretcher after Pilla smashed him over the head with his stick,” reads a news story about the game. “Pilla, taken to hospital twice last season after exchanges with Kowalchuk, struck with his stick Saturday night, then engaged Kowalchuk in a fist fight before Kowalchuk slumped to the ice.”
Pilla worked for BC Gas for 35 years and was a resident of Castlegar, B.C., at the time of his death. His family’s paid obituary made note of his “passion for Jesus,” a peacemaker whose influence was not always apparent in his playing days.