The B.C. Hockey League’s Trail Smoke Eaters have begun play for the year, not auspiciously, but, as they always say, it is just the pre-season.
Trail lost twice, in Chase of all places – I assume it was a half-way point for the Smoke Eaters and Prince George Spruce Kings and, as they always say, nobody much attends pre-season games anyway – to a Prince George franchise that now plays out of the mainland division of the BCHL.
The scores, 2-1 and 4-0 are immaterial, but the reminder that Prince George has changed divisions was salutary.
The move, taking the other outlier in the BCHL into the division bosom of the most populous area of the province, means Trail is likely hanging by a thread as a franchise.
The BCHL undoubtedly wants to keep Prince George, a fairly large city whose hockey team would be welcome in the Alberta league at not much more travel cost, in its organization.
Trail, which is now the only team in the interior division more than two hours from any other team involved, is in a small population area and every bit as far away from the coast teams as is Prince George, has had dwindling attendance figures and must be seen by many, particularly operators of the privately owned teams in the BCHL, as an unnecessary hanger-on the league could well do without.
So, this is crunch time for the Smokies and their fans and so-called fans.
The league will probably not do anything outright to discourage Trail’s commitment to the BCHL, but is unlikely to do any favours for the franchise either.
The Smoke Eaters are, more and more, on their own when it comes to maintaining a junior A presence in the area.
And, despite the fact the team is a hugely positive contributor to the local scene and the economy around it, there is reason to believe not enough locals care to make junior A a long-lasting fixture in the city.
It seems simple. If, over the next two seasons, attendance picks up for Cominco Arena games and the community shows a little enthusiasm for the club, Trail will keep its BCHL franchise.
If, on the other hand, the desultory support of recent seasons carries on, it is likely the executive will think strongly of giving up the battle and a junior B team will take the place of the current franchise.
I do not mean to say the team has no support. There are 500 or so locals who attend Smokie games whenever they can and many local businesses, big and small, that annually contribute to the junior A cause, including buying season tickets that often end up as empty, but paid for, seats on game nights.
But, the franchise is run by volunteers, sometimes very few of them, and unless there is a perceived community enthusiasm for the results of their efforts they could just reconsider the personal worth of those efforts.
I say every year that people should get out and support the Smoke Eaters for a variety of reasons, not least because the games are very good entertainment most nights.
One more time – having a Trail junior A franchise is a very good thing for this area, including the junior B clubs in the neighbourhood, and it would be a terrible thing to lose it.
Without a greater degree of community involvement with the club, that is just what might happen fairly soon.