The Trail Smoke Eaters are a confident group coming off two big wins at the BCHL Showcase, but the heavy lifting continues as they get set to take on the Chilliwack Chiefs at home tonight and the Silverbacks in Salmon Arm on Saturday.
“We’re loose, we’re light but we have a big weekend ahead,” said assistant captain Jeremy Lucchini. “We didn’t bring a great test last time we played Salmon Arm in Salmon Arm, and Chilliwack’s a good team. They’re hosting the RBC, so that should be a good game, but we have a tough weekend to finish off September.”
Lucchini, a Trail native, is in his third-year as a Smokie, and has seen firsthand the changes inside and out of the Trail dressing room and is impressed with the transformation of the Smoke Eater franchise.
“I remember my first year, me and Scotty (Davidson) and Jake (Lucchini) were doing some of the renovations on the old dressing room, putting up some drywall and painting the room, and now it’s crazy. We have a pro facility, a pro locker room, a pro weight room – it’s unbelievable. And it doesn’t end there, we’re bringing in new trainers, yoga teachers, and everything – it’s just a pro atmosphere – it’s pretty cool.”
And the changes are more than cosmetic. Earning nine of a possible 12 points and a share of top spot in the BCHL, the team is off to its best start in years and the energy in the Cominco Arena and the City of Trail is palpable.
“The mood has improved, big time,” said Lucchini. “Just even in the games too, we’re averaging 2,000 people a game, and it seems like I’m playing for a new team, honestly.”
The Smoke Eaters face a 1-3-1-1 Chiefs team that is off to a slow start after a 6-3 loss to the the Vees and the Nanaimo Clippers, 3-2, at the Showcase. The Chiefs came within a goal of capturing the BCHL title last year, if not for a 1-0 Game 7 loss to the Penticton Vees. It’s only a matter of time before this year’s team breaks out, as they did in the second half of last season.
“They’re a younger team but they’re very skilled and talented,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “I watched them play Penticton and for a period-and-a-half they controlled the game. Just their lack of experience and probably that setting of playing at home in the Showcase hurt them, but you can see they have some NHL Draft players like Brind’Amour’s kid (Skyler). They’re going to be a better team than what their record says right now.”
With over 200 NHL and college scouts in the stands at the Showcase, the Smoke Eater players remained poised throughout, skating to a 4-2 win over Powell River and a 7-2 victory over Surrey.
“It’s the Showcase,” said Keith. “So you never know what you’re going to get as far as a team effort, with kids trying to put on individual displays of their own skill set, but the kids stuck to the game plan and played a team oriented game and not only did we have success, a lot of our players had individual success as well so it was a great weekend.”
Young, rookie players were especially in demand and Smoke Eaters like Seth Barton and Levi Glasman, and second-year d-man Ethan Martini received ample interest from visiting scouts.
“A lot of our kids got some early NHL attention,” said Keith. “This year compared to last year, there was only some questions about Howarth, but this year, I’d say about 90 per cent of our line up was either talked to or I was questioned about from (NCAA) Division 1 schools or NHL so it was a really positive thing. Now I have schools asking me, ‘How do I get to Trail?’”
The early rookie attention also benefits other players, as more scouts coming to Trail means increased exposure for Smoke Eater players that may be overlooked on the road. Yet, before commitments start rolling in, Keith says the Smoke Eaters must attend to the more pressing task at hand.
“We haven’t won a game at home yet, so we can’t be that cocky about playing at home. We have to figure out a way to play in front of our home crowd right now, so that’s our focus.”
Trail faces off against the Chiefs at 7 p.m. tonight at the Cominco Arena in what will be their only home match until Oct. 13.