Trail Smoke Eaters owner Rich Murphy returned to Trail to oversee upcoming renovations to the Spud Shack.                                 Jim Bailey photo.

Trail Smoke Eaters owner Rich Murphy returned to Trail to oversee upcoming renovations to the Spud Shack. Jim Bailey photo.

A conversation with Smoke Eaters owner Rich Murphy

Murphy was in Trail last week to oversee the next big arena reno for the Smoke Eaters

The Trail Smoke Eaters owners Rich and Annie Murphy work tirelessly at making their companies and those that work with them a success, and whether they’re railway cars or a Jr. A hockey team, that success comes from a relentless pursuit of making customers happy.

“I’m busy and we have a lot of things going on, but it’s a passion and it’s something that I enjoy doing,” Murphy told the Trail Times. “I get enough sleep … I think.”

Murphy was in Trail last week to oversee the next big reno for the Smoke Eaters. Having people wait in line for food or beer while missing the game is not good for business. So the Minnesota native applied to the City of Trail to renovate the Spud Shack and extend it along the concourse, which the City approved last month, as well as give the Sud Shack a face lift.

“We’ve grown so quickly,” said Murphy. “When Annie and I first bought the team we had approximately 500- to-600 people in the arena … Last year we were pretty darn close to 1,900 people, so the Spud Shack needed to get bigger so we could be more efficient and serve more people. We’re going to expand that, and change it up a little bit to provide a better service to families and individuals that come to the games.

Following the purchase of the club from the Trail Hockey Club Society on Nov. 1, 2016, the Murphys promptly hired a full-time staff, renovated both the team and the building, worked hard and creatively to put fans in the seats, and build a culture of caring and committed staff and fans.

“This business is very difficult to make a profit,” said Murphy. “We have eight full-time employees and so our payroll is up there. We may be one of the highest in the BCHL but we have very good people and we want to take care of them.

“We could have bought other teams, but the community here just grabbed a hold of us and that was even before people knew we were even going to buy the team.”

The Smoke Eaters improved on the ice, going from an also-ran to a top contender in two seasons, as attendance soared from an average of about 900 to over 1,800 in 2017-18, fifth best in the BCHL.

The Smokies increased marketing and merchandising efforts has seen the Smoke Eaters logo get packed to the top of Mt. Everest courtesy of Montrose native Greg Barber, as well as sundry other stops around the globe.

“We’re just not managing a hockey team, we have much more to do. We are one of the few teams that actually does everything, and has the rights to. I think more teams would like to have that right, but it takes more people to do that. To make the cash come in you have to be more efficient.”

While many were initially suspect about the team’s sale, respect for the Murphys came quickly as both Rich and Annie spurned the private press box, and joined the action down in the orange seats, greeted fans at the door, and helped sell beer, game tickets, and merchandise.

“With all my companies I’m very involved, but this (the Smokies) by far is one of my companies I love the most,” explained Rich. “I love being around people and the atmosphere. I love sitting in that seat with everyone else, watching the big screen, and watching the player entrance video. Shaking hands with people as they come in or help them get souvenirs that’s the fun part of it, and that’s the type of people we are.”

One decision, however, that had a lot of Trail fans shaking their heads, was the firing of coach and GM Cam Keith at the end of the season. Keith’s sudden release came on the heels of Trail’s deepest playoff run in its history in the BCHL, and the Smoke Eaters best record, 32-21-4-1, in a decade. But Murphy was candid about the team’s decision, one that reflects his high standards and expectations.

“Coaches here in Trail, as long as I’m the owner, don’t get fired for wins and losses,” said Murphy. “They get let go because they’re not part of the team, and they’re not representing our organization – plain and simple.”

The Smoke Eaters new head coach and GM, Jeff Tambellini, has little coaching or managing experience, but for Murphy, his passion for the game, professionalism, and character made the biggest impression.

“After talking with him and understanding his passion, and mine and Annie’s passion, and Craig’s (director of hockey operations, Craig Clare) as well, he just seemed like a perfect fit. He doesn’t have a lot of bench experience but he’s a pro.

“He’s as close as you’re going to come from playing pro hockey and coming into Junior A hockey as a coach. Those people are hard to come by, and he’ll bring a different perspective to the game for these young men.”

And Murphy, unlike many in a highly competitive hockey world, stresses values over victories and personal growth over championships. Despite a run to the Interior Division final in April, his greatest satisfaction came from helping every graduating Smoke Eater from last year’s team, including his son Ryan, commit to play at a post-secondary institution.

“Really the big project year in and year out is developing these young men to be great community members. Our dream is to move kids on to fulfill their dreams. It doesn’t always mean Division I hockey, it can be Division III hockey, it means CIS.

“That’s something we’re very proud of and that’s why we’re in the business.”

While making the Smoke Eaters successful on and off the ice is a priority for Murphy, he is also committed to the community and the City of Trail. He purchased a residence at Red, and in the past year, the Murphy Family Foundation donated $30,000 to aid construction of the Trail Skatepark and last week gave another $27,000 toward the Lower Sunningdale Park conversion project.

“Our family foundation is set up to empower youth, and any time we can help out in that area is good … we love doing it and it doesn’t have to be through sports. We’d really love to work with the city or another organization and help youth in music and the arts, science, through education – it doesn’t matter. I think the youth of today just need a little help.”

As for the future of the Trail Smoke Eaters, Murphy’s priorities may surprise many, but given his convictions, perhaps not.

“I love to win and I don’t like to lose, and obviously I’d love to bring a championship to this team, but I think it’s the way you go about it.

“My number-1 goal is not to win a championship,” said Murphy. “My number-1 goal is to develop these young men and move them on in life, and provide the community with what we want to provide for them – the third thing is winning championships.”

Work on the Spud Shack is underway and the Trail Memorial Centre ice will be back in for the upcoming Champions Hockey School Aug. 11-17. The Smoke Eaters Main Camp goes Aug. 20-23 with their opening home game against West Kelowna on Sept. 7.