BCHL: Smoke Eaters split with Cents in pair of exhibition matches

The Trail Smoke Eaters hit the road to open the exhibition season against the Merritt Centennials last weekend.

Hockey season has officially begun, as the Trail Smoke Eaters hit the road to open the exhibition season against the Merritt Centennials last weekend.

Following a week of training camp on the ice, intensive military exercises courtesy of Sean Bacon off the ice, and a fun and successful charity softball game, the Smoke Eaters appear ready for another BCHL season.

“It was amazing, it couldn’t have gone any better,” said Smokies coach and GM Nick Deschenes of the charity baseball game at Butler Park between the Smokies and Trail Firefighters and RCMP that  raised about $3,000 for the Smoke Eater Booster Club, Special Olympics, and Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital critical care campaign.

The Smokies followed that up with a trip to Osoyoos where they dropped a close 7-5 decision in their opening exhibition match against the Centennials on Friday, but rebounded with a 4-2 victory the following night in Merritt.

“The first game was exactly that, a first game, there were some lapses, and defensive breakdowns that left them (the Cents) with some pretty good scoring chances.”

Merritt erupted for seven goals in the first two periods to take a 7-4 lead into the third. The Smokies would get within two but was consistently thwarted by former Powell River King goaltender Jonah Imoo.

“Our third period was our best period, and it was good that we were building as the game went on.”

The final-period play carried over to Saturday when Trail’s defence tightened up significantly, and Dallas Calvin, and Charlie Zuccarini, provided Trail with a 2-1 second period lead, before Craig Martin netted the winner and Jake Lucchini added an insurance marker on the way to the 4-2 victory.

“It’s a tough rink to play in, that Merritt rink, so I thought they responded really well and got stronger as the game went on. We talked about being more intense in front of our net and it helped.”

The Smokies look promising starting with their goaltending, right on through to their offence which produced nine goals against the CHL’s number-14 ranked team.

“On the weekend, we didn’t do a lot of teaching, so it was really a lot of on the fly, and the guys were playing like they would in the past, so we were pretty happy with the foundation that’s here and then we can just fine tune and build from there.”

Returning 20-year-old goalie Adam Todd started both games, playing in the first two periods, before he was relieved by the KIJHL Creston ThunderCat goalie Brock Lefebvre.

The Smokies will ice potent offensive weapons in Bryan Basilico, Calvin, Brandon Volpe, and Scott Davidson this season and Trail’s Lucchini and Martin will also be relied on to produce as both players came on last year counting 26 and 30 points respectively – Lucchini for the Smokies and Martin with the Vernon Vipers and Alberni Bulldogs.

Veteran defencemen Harlan Orr, Zane Schartz, and Viktor Dombroviskiy will anchor a solid blue line. However, the unknown factor may be the greatest concern; with 10 rookies on board, the team lacks experience at the Junior A level. Still, Deschenes is not worried.

“A lot of them are 19-year-olds recruited from the U.S.. We’ll have a slightly older team than most. There will be an adjustment period for sure for some of them, otherwise I don’t think they’re too far off of having an impact in the league.”

If the success of the charity softball game is any indication, the group of players has already made giant strides into the community, now Smokies supporters will look to see it continue onto the ice.

“We’ve got a really good group here,” said Deschenes. “Just overall everyone’s a really good character person and so I think that’s going to go a long way for us this season.”

As for expectations, the Smoke Eaters will aim high, says Deschenes, but will focus on short-term goals in what many consider a make-or-break year for the team. Improving on last year’s 10-win season is a no-brainer, and making the playoffs a prerequisite to another BCHL season.

“I tend to shoot for the moon, and then recalibrate . . . For our group and our day-to-day operations, it’s really going to be about what are we doing today, and obviously we have our long term, I’ll call them more dreams than goals. But if we chip away at the goals in front of us, it should lead us onto that path and you never know what can happen in sports.”

The Smokies play the Selkirk College Saints in home-and-home exhibition matches in Castlegar on Friday and at the Cominco Arena at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.