The Trail Smoke Eaters enter a new era rife with optimism, with the official ownership torch being passed to Minnesota businessman Rich Murphy on Wednesday.
Murphy and his wife, Annie, joined their son, current Smoke Eater Ryan Murphy, along with the players’ parents at the Colombo Lodge on Saturday for a banquet and a pair of games at the Cominco Arena, giving the new owners a chance for an introduction and an opportunity to put their personal stamp on the team.
“The reception has been overwhelming,” said Rich Murphy on Sunday. “The community has been very receptive and very welcoming to my wife and I. It’s been great, it really has.”
It was telling that the Murphy’s watched the game from the stands rather than the press-box, with Annie wearing a Smoke Eater jersey and cheering as vigorously as any in the storied Cominco seats.
A lot of speculation has followed the Smoke Eaters and its new owners since the announcement of the sale of the Smokies in September and what it means to the Silver City, the logo, and the BCHL franchise.
Ryan, who played in the U.S. Junior Hockey League last season and was signed by the Smoke Eaters on Mar. 1, may have been a catalyst for the senior Murphy’s interest in a junior hockey team, but the Orono, Minn. owners are committed to the Smoke Eaters for the long term.
“Ryan’s here for a year or two and then he’s gone,” said Murphy. “So this is a long-term venture for us, an endeavour, and has nothing to do with our son. It’s more about the kids in general and the community. The reason we picked Trail, we had other opportunities to buy other teams, but my wife and I really liked the community and the community involvement, the area, and the facilities.”
While the Murphys were not steeped in the Smoke Eater tradition, with each visit they learn more and more about its rich history and feel fortunate to be a part of it.
“I’ve had other owners saying, ‘You’re really lucky, you got the Trail Smoke Eaters,’” said Murphy. “That’s just awesome, and we’re learning about the deep history that this team has.”
Murphy made his first move as owner in hiring Smokies assistant coach Craig Clair as Director of Hockey Operations, and is looking to hire more locals to help staff a Smoke Eater team that has been run by a skeleton crew of board members, and many loyal volunteers. While Murphy will be away much of the time, he plans to stay in the loop through the people he hires.
“I want to be involved quite a bit. The reality is I’ll be involved every day – I won’t be here every day – but the key is to hire good quality people. I’ve been very, very surprised with the interviews that we had here, the quality of people has just been amazing … way more qualified than I am for sure.”
The Smoke Eaters players, staff, volunteers, and fans can also look forward to more big changes both cosmetic and internal. Murphy plans to overhaul the Cominco Arena and the Smoke Eaters offices and dressing rooms, including a new weight-training room and lounge for the players, and give the fans something more to cheer about when they come to the rink.
“We want to make this game-night an event for the fans,” says Murphy. “We’ll make small changes up front, and build on that. Next year will be a totally different event … we want to make it a night out for these families and give them value for the ticket they’ve paid.”
As for the on-ice product, Murphy is supportive of new head coach and GM Cam Keith and his assistants Curtis Toneff and Barry Zanier, and likes the direction the team is headed, especially after winning a pair of games against Salmon Arm and Victoria on the weekend. Murphy intends to make Trail a viable product and attractive option for elite players with state-of-the-art facilities and a promise of college and NCAA commitments.
“I spent a lot of time with Cam (Keith) and his staff, and they’re doing a great job. The kids are really working for him, they’re understanding, he is very easy to communicate with, and that’s important to these kids. We have a good team, and we’re going to get better.”
But Murphy is also deadly serious about the direction of this team and its future goals.
“We want to bring a championship back here. But first we have to build on what we have and continue to improve; it starts from the ground up … and I have no doubt that we will be competing with Penticton year in and year out.”