Since the beginning of the Trail Smoke Eaters main camp, anticipation for the new hockey season has been building for Smoke Eater captain Troy Ring and the rest of the Smoke Eaters. But that anticipation ends tonight when the Smoke Eaters open their 22nd season in the BCHL against the West Kelowna Warriors.
“We’re super excited for tomorrow night, and it’s going to be a real special one,” Ring told the Times on Thursday. “All the guys have been battling so hard the last couple weeks, even through exhibitions, and we just want the real thing to get going here.”
This year’s Smoke Eater team has a strong contingent of veteran Smoke Eaters with 13 returning players and a promising crop of rookies. Yet, the support from the community, the Smoke Eaters operations staff, and recent renos have given this year’s team an extra edge and optimism.
“The team’s looking really good,” said Ring. “We’ve already gelling really nice, and we all have each other backs, and we can’t wait to play together and get this thing rolling.
“With the new facilities, there’s just more energy from the front office, to the coaches, down into the team, everyone’s just real excited.”
The Smoke Eater players also voted on their assistant captains for the year. Ross Armour and Blaine Caton will wear the ‘A’ full time, while Trail native Jeremy Lucchini will wear it at home games and Kale Howarth on the road.
“There wasn’t too many surprises, basically our older guys,” said coach and GM Cam Keith. “But Ross Armour was a kid that you’re not sure, because he is pretty quiet, but he’s a kid who is a lead-by-example type player and it’s nice to see that the players recognize that.”
The team also boasts a large Kootenay representation with the return of Armour, Spencer McLean, Lucchini, Ethan Martini, Kyle Chernenkoff and Korbyn Chabot as well as rookie additions in Montrose native Tyler Ghirardosi, Rossland’s Karsten Jang and Trail’s Jake Yuris.
Trail is coming off its best season in recent history, finishing third in the tough BCHL Interior division and advancing to the semifinal of the division playoff. However, the addition of last year’s regular season champion Wenatchee Wild will make the Interior even more challenging.
“It’s going to make our division tighter than it already is,” said Ring. “They’re obviously a very good program and adding to all the other teams in our division, it’s going to be really tight, and every game is going to matter.”
For Keith, rookie players like Levi Glasman and Seth Barton came as advertised, and the most recent addition, forward Carter Jones, was an unexpected gift from the WHL, joining the team for the exhibition game against Vernon, Saturday.
“His goal was to play for the Spokane Chiefs but they didn’t want to ruin his eligibility by putting him in exhibition games, and a perfect fit was to have him in Trail,” said Keith. “I didn’t see him play last year, but the kid can play. He’s really good.”
Keith likes the “blue-collar” makeup of this year’s edition with players that combine hard work with skill and grit, and believes the chemistry is already there.
“The kids that we brought in are all good kids and kind of naturally adapted to the group. It always plays itself out once you get into the regular season and the hardships if some kids aren’t playing and some are struggling. You have to have a really strong group dynamic to make sure that no one goes astray, and I think we have that kind of group this year.”
The Smoke Eaters are skilled up front with Andre Ghantous, Howarth, Caton and Armour leading the way, and will be solid on defence with the veteran core of Ring, Martini, Lucchini, and Chernenkoff. Goaltending is always an uncertainty when both are new, but Brandon Wells is a proven backstop with solid credentials, and Tanner Marshall earned his spot with a strong showing in camp.
Like every team in the Interior, West Kelowna will prove a challenge tonight, and the Smoke Eaters won’t take them lightly.
“They reloaded with some bigger, stronger kids. They had some really good returning players as well, and it’s Rylan Ferster, he’s one of those coaches capable of reloading when he loses a lot of key guys, so it’s going to be, I believe, one of the better teams in our division, but you never know until things play out.”
The Smoke Eaters open the 2017-18 season against the Warriors at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.