Trail Smoke Eaters owner Rich Murphy finally met his head coach and GM in person.
It’s been 14 months since he hired Tim Fragle via Zoom in June 2020, but Murphy, a Minnesota resident, has been waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic in his home country doing business virtually, as the U.S.-Canada border remained closed from March of 2020 until it reopened Monday, Aug. 9, 2021.
Murphy was on the first plane headed to Trail.
“Just imagine owning a company, and everything works you just can’t be there,” said Murphy. “We got the go-ahead to come in on (August) the ninth, so I came in on the ninth.”
The pandemic ended a promising start to the playoffs for Trail and then turned the 2020-21 season into a war of attrition that dramatically affected all amateur sports teams, especially a team like the Smoke Eaters used to drawing 2,000 fans every game.
“When you have a situation like this, there’s times where a bad environment can create something good, and I think that it forced Craig (Craig Clare, director of hockey and business operations) and I to really look at our business plan and ask what do we need to do to make this better,” said Murphy. “The reality is, we’re working on things that will help this company be self-sufficient.”
With hard work from staff, the Smoke Eaters ran a month of successful minor hockey camps last August, promoted its product, and like all BCHL teams, the players’ families committed to subsidizing their training and development.
“Last year’s business model was totally different, last year’s business model was to survive,” said Murphy.
“Last year was a year our players paid, it was a development year. We gave these athletes something that they really never had before. We didn’t play a game so you were working on your skills Monday to Friday, sometimes Saturdays. We were working out in the gym hard, skating hard a couple times a day, it was just a different atmosphere.
“Mentally it was tough on the kids, and everyone else, it was just a very difficult year.”
In B.C., ongoing uncertainty was the overriding force of the pandemic as the Smoke Eaters waited four months from Dec. 3 to April 2 before they could resume play in a three-team pod. As teams waited for news from the government, some players left, others never arrived.
“We had a good group last year, but we lost a lot of those, and the Americans we had recruited weren’t able to come over,” explained Clare. “We had to make decisions on the fly. The rules changed as we went, we were playing games, we weren’t playing games, there was a portion when the 19 and 20 year olds couldn’t practice, it changed every four to six weeks on what we could do.”
Those challenges were felt across the league and the country, as some leagues suspended play, others shut down altogether. Fortunately for BC teams, viaSport BC came up with financial relief via the Amateur Sport League Fund.
The Smoke Eaters were one of several BCHL teams that accessed the Fund, which provided $11.2M to assist amateur sport teams.
While the grant won’t make up for the losses endured through an unfinished 2019 playoff run or the abbreviated 2019-20 season, they are welcomed and appreciated, said Murphy.
“We are incredibly grateful to viaSport B.C. for this gift as it will most certainly help us economically recover from the impacts of COVID-19 as well as position our organization for success moving forward in a post-COVID world.”
Murphy is glad to finally be back in Trail and looks forward to a 54 game season, with the Smokies on home ice, fans in the stands, concessions running, and 50/50 draws drawing.
The Smoke Eaters staff expect to see at least 50 per cent capacity when the season starts, and would like to see that increase as the season progresses.
“At the end of the day, we’re in this business for multiple reasons,” said Murphy. “One of the reasons is to help kids get better at a skill, and to build for their future whether that’s on the ice, in the classroom, with their families or whatever.
“The other side of this is, over the last five years we’ve really seen the city make this place be a place to come and see their neighbours or people they went to high school with. They come to this game and it’s not just all about hockey, they enjoy the hockey, they like to win, we all like to win, but it is an atmosphere that has really grown.”
Although fans can expect a modest bump in ticket prices, Clare confirmed they will remain below the BCHL average.
A small price to pay for the Murphy family’s commitment to Greater Trail – the team and the community.
The Smoke Eaters are also looking for host billet families. If interested, contact Craig Clare at email@example.com.