No two people have been more committed to the Trail Smoke Eaters Jr. A hockey team than former president Tom Gawryletz and treasurer Rick Basso, and on Friday the Smoke Eaters organization honoured the longtime volunteers for almost two decades of service.
“There has been a lot going on since the sale of the team and we just wanted to make sure it wasn’t lost on our players and our fans of the work they’ve done over the years and will continue to in the new roles with the society,” said Director of Hockey Operations and former Smoke Eater assistant coach Craig Clare.
In an opening ceremony at Friday’s match between the Trail Smoke Eaters and West Kelowna Warriors, Clare awarded Gawryletz and Basso commemorative plaques in recognition of their dedication and significant contributions.
“I’m a little excited, I guess,” said Basso before the presentation. “But you know it’s not something I did to get recognized for, I just did it because I enjoyed hockey.”
The Trail native was a volunteer and president for eight years with the Senior Smoke Eaters organization before joining the Jr. Smoke Eaters in 2003 and taking over the reins as treasurer in 2006.
“I was president with the Senior Smoke Eaters and I swore I would never get involved again, but here I am, and it’s been about 13 years since I’ve been involved with the juniors and I haven’t regretted any of it,” said Basso.
Gawryletz also has his roots firmly entrenched in Smoke Eater hockey. The Nelson native played for the Senior Smoke Eaters for five seasons back in the 70s then watched his sons Brandon and Travis suit up for the BCHL Smoke Eaters from 2000-04. Both went on to play NCAA hockey and Travis was a 2004 eighth-round draft selection of the Philadelphia Flyers.
“I played senior hockey and both my boys played (for the Smoke Eaters), and when my youngest one left, I went to a meeting and they were hard up for help so I got involved in I think it was 2000,” said Gawryletz.
Basso and Gawryletz guided the Smoke Eaters team through both good times and bad, with highlights that included playoff runs in the early half of their tenure and keeping the team financially sound through numerous fundraising initiatives like the Smokies golf tournaments, ALS banquets, steak and lobster dinners, and 50/50 draws, as well as helping many young men realize their dreams on and off the ice.
“The most disappointing thing obviously is the last four or five years and not making the playoffs,” said Gawryletz. “But I’m really proud of all the kids that got to go to school and I really believe that’s a huge part of Junior A hockey.”
As for Basso and many Smoke Eater fans, a seven-game series playoff against the West Kelowna Warriors in 2011 was a high-water mark for the team.
However, the years that followed was a rough stretch for the Smoke Eater faithful. The president and treasurer were instrumental in keeping the Smoke Eater ship afloat the past five years when a losing record, missed playoffs, a dwindling fan base, fewer volunteers, and mounting debt threatened to sink the BCHL organization.
“I owe a lot of that to Tommy,” said Basso. “He stuck it out, he loved the hockey team, and he did it solely for the hockey team and he didn’t want to see it go under.”
Getting aid from local volunteers and businesses, and investing countless hours and their own resources kept the Smoke Eaters viable until the Smoke Eaters Society found a buyer last fall in Minnesota businessman Rich Murphy, who purchased 90 per cent of the team.
“I didn’t want to see the team leave town,” said Gawryletz. “Ricky and I both, being involved in Senior hockey club and the Jr. hockey club, and I don’t have to tell you, the minute they leave town it’s all over. This is a great hockey community and for them to lose the team completely and maybe have to go back to Jr. B may have been a step backwards. There’s still a lot of good hockey fans in this town and Rich is going to find a way to get them out.”
Basso and Gawryletz already miss the day-to-day business of running the team, but with the Trail Smoke Eaters Society still an essential element of the organization, fortunately for the community, the men will still play a big role in making the team a success.
“I’m going to stick with it none of us are going to leave that’s for sure,” said Gawryletz. “The board’s going to stick around and I want to see them be successful.”
Smoke Signals: The Smoke Eaters Society retains a 10 per cent interest in the team and, while its role has yet to be completely defined, it will likely have to do with fundraising and staying connected to the community and those that have supported the Smoke Eaters through thick and thin.
“I want to thank the season ticket holders who have been coming for years, that I’ve been involved,” said Gawryletz. “I can’t say enough about the corporate sponsors that have been involved with the club since day one … and the City of Trail has been good to us as well, we have one of the best leases in the league and it would have been a shame for the city to let us wander away.”