This is the way the season ends, not with a whimper but a bang – at least in some aspects. A huge crowd, well-papered but pouring money into Smoke Eater coffers in spite of that, showed up for the final regular season game, in part because of freebies, in part because a gritty late-season run by the local team had seemed to put them in do-or-die situation for a playoff spot.
It started well. Trail scored early and the crowd was loudly buzzing. Then, in the space of a little over seven minutes mid first period, it all fell apart for the home side, and the home crowd. It may have happened, in part, because the Trail players, unused to the busyness of the building, tried too hard and lost their focus. Whatever the reason, the season was over before the first period was.
I will give the crowd credit. They, as Smoke Eater fans mostly do, mostly stayed – and for a while even still hoped for the best – until the disappointing end of a disappointing game. They also spent into the Smokies’ coffers, on the biggest 50-50 game draw in recent memory, on the rolling 50-50 draw and on various confections and beverages.
Give credit to the Merritt Centennials, as well. As the night turned out, the Smoke Eaters would not have qualified for a playoff spot even by beating Vernon. Merritt roared back from a three goal third period deficit against the top junior A team in the country, the mighty Penticton Vees Friday night, and then held off Wenatchee Saturday, to slide past the Smokies in the standings. With last place on their doorstep the Centennials knocked off teams 53 and 27 points their standings superiors when the weekend began and escaped the basement – not that they will be much mollified by that feat as they pack up their stuff along with the Smokies.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of Saturday night was that the Smokies play over that seven-and-a-bit first period minutes meant all the extra people in the building were not treated to the kind of entertaining, positive hockey effort the team has showcased so often during another ultimately failed playoff quest.
We are in next year country now, the Smokies already making moves to replace the seven or eight skaters and senior goalie they will certainly lose from the roster. Next year country is a place full of hope.
• Meanwhile, the KIJHL playoffs have been a tense place to be and that will continue, starting tonight at the Hawks’ Nest.
Although they swept their series, the Hawks had to play hard against the Nelson Leafs. Now they face the upstart Grand Forks Border Bruins, who took the last two games against Castlegar (which battled the Hawks for top spot in the division until almost the end of the season and finished 18 points ahead of Grand Forks in the final standings.)
Consider this, since the early season, while a very new Bruins lineup was finding its legs, BV and GF are 3-4, in games during which the Nitehawks scored 18 goals and the Bruins 17.
If valley fans believe home support can make a difference in game results, it behooves them to get out to the arena this weekend.