The Trail Smoke Eaters embark on a journey towards respectability as they host the Coquitlam Express at the Trail Memorial Centre tonight.
The Smoke Eaters play their first game since the dismissal of head coach and GM Bill Birks, and though the sudden firing was both surprising and expected, it puts a whole new emphasis on the team’s performance and it’s ability to compete in the BCHL’s tough Interior division.
Captain Adam Wheeldon will feel the loss more acutely, as his two-plus years with the Smokies has been under Birks tenure, and it was Birks who pinned the ‘C’ on the Nelson native’s jersey this season.
“It’s obviously hard to see him go, and I was really, really close with him, but it’s out of my hands, there’s nothing I can do,” said Wheeldon. “We as players need to play a lot better, we haven’t been pulling our weight out there. We have to keep our heads up and keep going.”
In hockey, the coach is usually the first casualty of an under-performing team, and it was no different for Birks who was recognized as an “old school” coach, who didn’t pull any punches, wore his heart on his sleeve, and expected the most out of his players and coaches.
Assistants Barry Zanier and Craig Clair have slightly different styles, but Wheeldon expects that they won’t be any less demanding than the former bench boss.
“Whoever they choose will be awesome. I like both of our assistant coaches, we’re just going to wait and see who is going to take over here.”
Tonight the Smokies face the BCHL’s most prolific scoring team, led by league-leading scorer Adam Rockwood who has netted 23 points in 13 games this season and 18-year-old rookie Corey Mackin, 9-10-19.
Goalie Gordon Defiel has carried most of the load in net for the Express14 with six wins in 10 games and a 2.89 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. The Express are coming off a 5-4 loss to Surrey and currently sit in second place in the Mainland Division with a 7-4-0-2 record.
The Smoke Eaters can’t help but feel a little added pressure, and after tonight will embark on a four-game road swing, starting in Merritt on Sunday.
“It sucks, we were all pretty close with Bill but something had to be done, and we just have to keep our heads up high and there is still lots of hockey to be played . . . Now that we have a new coach, it’s definitely on us more to perform; still it’s hard but we’ll get through it.”
The Smokies journey to the coast next weekend for games in Powell River, Port Alberni, and Nanaimo, and return home Nov. 1 to play the Victoria Grizzlies.
The puck drops at 7:30 p.m. tonight for the Smoke Eater-Coquitlam game at the Cominco Arena.