Jeff Tambellini is eager to put the team’s training and preparation to the test Friday night when the Trail Smoke Eaters open the 2018-19 regular season against the West Kelowna Warriors at the Cominco Arena. Photo courtesy of the Trail Smoke Eaters

‘I can’t wait for the puck to drop’

New head coach Jeff Tambellini is ready to write next chapter in family’s link to Trail Smoke Eaters

It’s been a while since the name Tambellini has been mentioned on the Trail Smoke Eaters roster.

And usually when that name is associated with the team, good things happen.

So on Friday night, when Jeff Tambellini steps behind the Smokies bench for the season opener at the Cominco Arena, the 34-year-old rookie coach will be following a family tradition and ready for the challenge.

“I think it’s more excitement,” said Tambellini, describing any butterflies prior to Friday’s opener. “I’ve had four months, coming in as general manager and head coach, to get ready and execute the way we want.

“It’s nice to have the time to plan, recruit some players that I thought could be impact guys in this league and build those relationships before they got to training camp. So by the time they got here we were moving in the right direction.

“It really paid off because once the guys got here they knew what I wanted, they knew the type of team we were going to be, the way we were going to play.

“I can’t wait for the puck to drop Friday.”

And thus will begin another Tambellini chapter in Smoke Eater history. His grandfather Addy was part of the 1961 world championship team, his father Steve cut his hockey teeth in the Home of Champions before carving a path as a respected NHL player and executive. Now Jeff is taking the next step in his hockey career in a town that has meant so much to his family.

“That’s why I’m here. This city has given me and my family everything we’ve ever had.

“My great grandfather came over from Italy and built a life and built a family, his son won a world championship here, my father got to grow up here. So everything is always linked back to Trail.

“When the opportunity came up for me it was a no-brainer.”

On Friday, fans will see what his hectic four months as head coach and general manager has created.

The Smokies are coming off their best season in years. The club finished fourth in the ultra-tough Interior Conference posting 32 wins in 58 games. They followed that with a deep playoff run before losing to eventual league champion Wenatchee in the conference final.

But a lot has changed since then. Gone are the likes of Kale Howarth, Ross Armour, Jeremy Lucchini and Andre Ghantous.

“We lost a lot of bodies,” admitted Tambellini. “We had some great things happen last year. We have to recognize that the guys who were leading that charge aren’t here anymore.

“It’s up to a whole new wave of guys. And that’s part of the BCHL, you usually lose your top five guys every year. And it’s up to the next group to come in.”

The entire process of building this year’s edition of the Smoke Eaters and coaching it is something Tambellini has relished.

“I always wanted to be a general manager and that was a big piece of taking this job. And the fact that my father was in the business. It’s something him and I have talked about since I was 10. I feel like I’ve been groomed from a young age.

“Plus I have great senior advisors in my dad and Glen Sanders, two good people that are just a phone call away.”

He said their advice never focuses on an overall strategy to managing a team.

“It’s never the big stuff that comes from those guys. It’s always the subtle, little differences. It’s the little details, that’s what makes the differences.”

And while being a GM was something Tambellini aspired to, he also wanted the chance to shape the team as head coach.

“That’s why I was excited to get both positions. You get to recruit the players, set the team up the way you want but also get to be the guy to send them over the boards too and let them play, which is really exciting.

“I saw the effects that a coach could have on people. And sometimes when the manager is not on the bench, they miss that. I’ve had some fantastic coaches who helped me so much. So if you get guys at a young age and show them how to do it the right way and that becomes a habit for those guys, you can really change the kid’s life.

“And that’s why I’m here. We have great players that want to be hockey players, they want to learn, they want to get better and I’m excited just to get a chance to work with these guys.”

So the question is: What will his first pre-game speech as a head coach be like?

“I talk too much as it is,” he joked.

“I know what these kids are going through. I’ve played so many different roles, I’ve been the leading scorer at times, I’ve been a healthy scratch in the NHL. So every guy in that room, I’ve lived what they’re going through. It’s never easy and you’re never going to have 22 guys who are having a great day.

“We’re here to win championships but we’re also here to groom young men. And in the end that’s really what we’re doing

“If we do our job right, then championships and all that winning usually is a byproduct.”

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