Parity prevails in Interior division

Behind the scenes of the Trail Smoke Eaters with Chris Wahl.

In an interview with the radio broadcaster for the Penticton Vees earlier this season, Smoke Eaters head coach Bill Birks called the BCHL’s Interior division “the toughest division in Canada.” A month into the 2013-14 season, the standings are proving him right.

Four points separate first place from last place as we head into the month of October, with the Smokies sitting smack-dab in the middle, tied for third place with Salmon Arm and Vernon on nine points through nine games. Contrast that with both Coastal Conference divisions, where a minimum four-point gap already exists between playoff and non-playoff teams.

Penticton and West Kelowna, both of whom picked up maximum points in their visits to Cominco Arena in September, sit tied atop the division with 6-2 records. And while both teams have stellar offenses, the Vees’ early defensive prowess is certainly proving to be something special. Penticton has allowed only 12 goals through 8 games, all the more impressive when you consider six of those games were played away from home.

Vernon and Salmon Arm have both had inconsistent starts, and both shook up their rosters this week in an effort to acquire more size on their back end. The Vipers shipped Trail’s Craig Martin to Alberni Valley (who, ironically enough, visit Cominco Arena tomorrow) for hulking rearguard Jared Wilson, while the SilverBacks parted with (arguably) their biggest off-season acquisition Zach Urban in a deal with Langley Tuesday for 20 year-old Mark Whiteley. Merritt, a point behind the Smokies, are proving to be as hard-working and scrappy as ever despite a pile of early injuries.

The early parity means each of Trail’s remaining 49 games are important, starting with visits from the Bulldogs and Centennials this weekend. We saw last month what can happen if the Smokies don’t come to the rink ready to play every night, and we also saw last weekend what can happen if Trail lets its foot off the gas pedal for stretches during games.

Through nine fixtures, though, we’ve also seen flashes of brilliance from this club as it gels and forms an identity. And with a home-heavy schedule over the next two months, the time is now for Trail to make Cominco Arena the toughest stop on the BCHL circuit for visiting teams (it’s not as though the other Interior clubs like coming here, after all).

One month from now, we could see a wildly different setup in the Interior standings, although I’d like to suggest that come Nov. 1 there will be as little wiggle room as there is right now. And for those fans that have chosen to brave the inconvenience that is Victoria Street so far (kudos to you, by the way), the month of October promises to bring an extra dose of drama than we might be ordinarily used to at this time of year.