The Trail Smoke Eaters executive unveiled the new majoriy owner of the BCHL franchise on Tuesday to a standing-room-only crowd of about 150 supporters in the McIntyre Room at the Trail Memorial Centre.
Minnesota businessman Rich Murphy has agreed to a $600,000 deal and 90 per cent ownership of the Trail Smoke Eaters with the Smoke Eaters Society retaining 10 per cent of the team and a mandate to continue running the operation.
“He (Murphy) has a tremendous amount of respect for the community and the hockey history, that’s all he spoke about when he met with us,” said Gawryletz. “I feel really comfortable with him, I think the board feels comfortable, and he’s met all the coaches and staff as well … We get a really good vibe from him. He’s not about money, he’s about the kids and the community.”
The Smoke Eaters have struggled with mounting debt over the past five years, a result of increasing expenses, fewer fundraising funds, and declining numbers at the gate making the future of the Smokies all but untenable.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” said Gawryletz. “Right now we’re sitting at roughly $400,000 in debt, and we find this basically our only way out.”
The new owner is the father of Smokies’ forward Ryan Murphy who had already been signed by the Smokies prior to camp. The senior Murphy had also shown interest in the West Kelowna Warriors and Nanaimo Clippers franchises and test drove a few North American Hockey League teams before deciding on the Smoke Eaters after a visit to Trail and meeting with coaches and executive at the team’s home opener.
As negotiations played out and a deal transpired, the potential benefits to the team and the city became more and more apparent.
“If what he says comes to fruition,” said Gawryletz. “He’s going to be spending a ton of his own money. He’s going to do what we can’t do, which is hire a General Manager, hire someone for the office. I mean right off the bat he’s creating three or four jobs.”
After Gawryletz explained the deal, he fielded questions from attendees that expressed concern over the potential loss of the Smoke Eaters team and the iconic brand to another city.
“What we want you to understand is that we are not going anywhere,” said Gawryletz. “The Society has a right to first refusal on the contract if he decides to sell or leave, and he’s told me that if he’s had enough, he’ll just probably will the team to the city.”
Smoke Eaters director Steve Robinson was positive about the move and optimistic about the future of the team on and off the ice.
“From our standpoint, this is a real chance for the team to potentially go to the next level and do things that we can’t … It’s also very exciting for the community and for the fans that come to the game, because things might happen that we hear about all the time, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to see this or do that?’ And it’s very hard to do that when you have to sell hotdogs in order for it to happen. This is a chance for someone to come in and make things better.”
Assistant coach Barry Zanier has been with the Smoke Eaters for the past 15 years and sees the new partnership as “a breath of fresh air.” And while the injection of funds into the Smoke Eater coffers is a benefit for the bottom line, Zanier says a private owner can boost on-ice success as well.
“Probably the biggest area is in recruitment. Possibly a bigger budget for a recruiter, because really that’s what this league is about. The reality is the best recruiters usually have the best teams, and hopefully we could improve in that area, and just sprucing up the arena … It’s always been a tough job trying to get a player here if another team like Kelowna, Penticton, or Vernon is recruiting them, so maybe this will turn things around.”
Former Mayor Dieter Boggs and current Mayor Mike Martin both endorsed the move and commended the work of the executive board and directors as the meeting wrapped up.
“We (the City) welcome this opportunity and are really working hard to make this work,” said Martin. “Everything I’ve been involved in demonstrates just how exciting it will be for this community to advance in this direction, and I really want to credit this whole board for taking on this initiative and giving us the opportunity, and doing something that is really going to make a difference for the Smoke Eaters and this community.”
As for the Smoke Eater president, after all was said and done, he summed up the proceedings with a mixture of relief and contentment.
“I was on pins and needles all day, but it turned out great,” said Gawryletz. “A great turnout and a positive turnout, that’s important.”