The Trail Smoke Eaters effort to woo fans back to the Cominco Arena in September is off to a promising start following major changes to its lineup and a frenzied recruiting campaign over the summer.
The Smoke Eaters will look to bounce back from a challenging 2013-14 season in the BCHL as prospects take to the ice at the Cominco Arena on Friday for the start of the Smokies’ main fall camp.
“What we went through last year with players wanting to move, with players not reporting, and we really got hit hard with injuries at the end of the year; all of the above made for a really challenging environment,” said Trail coach and GM Nick Deschenes.
“With the situation last year, there were obviously a lot of challenges, and for everybody. I’m noticing the ramifications even now. When a coach changes it can turn everything upside down, from players being relocated, players asking for trades, to billet families having to deal with changes in their players leaving or new ones coming. It throws everything for a loop.”
It translated into a 10-42-2-4 season, one of the Smokies most forgettable in its history in the BCHL. However, following recruiting trips out east, Deschenes and assistants Barry Zanier and Craig Clair have managed to stock the Smokies growing roster with a number of committed players.
In addition to returning players Bryan Basilico, Lake Superior University, and Trail’s Scott Davidson and Craig Martin, Quinnipiac University, the Smokies recruited and signed Air Force commit Robbie Johnson from Kamloops, Bryan Gerstenfeld and Ryan Swanson, Army, Victor Dombrovskiy, Yale, and just this week inked defenceman Conner Wynne, a third-round draft pick of the Green Bay Gamblers of the U.S. Junior Hockey League and a Brown University commit.
“He’s a very highly-touted defenceman, and he falls in line with what we’re trying to do here with getting players that are on that path (to university).”
Wynne, an 18-year-old Poloma, N.Y. native played with Milton Academy in the US High School league in addition to the Boston Jr. Bruins U18 team two years ago.
The Smokies back end looks all but set with Adam Todd returning in net along with former Beaver Valley Nitehawk MVP goalie Brett Clark, who is currently nursing an ankle injury. Teammate Sheldon Hubbard from last year’s Keystone Cup winning Hawks’, will also suit up in Orange and Black this year. The 190-pound Hubbard is a big, agile defenceman with an offensive upside, and will anchor the blue line along with former WJAC defenceman Dombrovskiy, Zane Shartz, Gerstenfeld, Swanson, Dexter McLeod, and Wynne.
With the defence solidified, Deschenes says they’re still looking for a couple of forwards, but the Smokies’ offence is also beginning to take form with the return of forwards Basilico, Davidson, Brandon Volpe, Sheldon Brett and Jake Lucchini, the acquisition of Martin and Harlan Orr from Alberni Valley, and the signing of Trail’s Dallas Calvin and Brampton native and London Knight draft pick Kyle Cochrane.
The local Smokies contingent of Davidson, Calvin, Martin, and Jake Lucchini, which may also include 17-year-old defenceman Jeremy Lucchini who was impressive for the Nitehawks last season, should help draw fans to the rink and is a strong foundation upon which to build a closer relationship with the community.
“The fact there is a local presence and a lot of people have had an impact in getting these young men to where they are; their families, their previous coaches, it’s a testament to a lot of people’s efforts, so as the coach I’ve kind of reaped the benefits of that and I think that every player that comes into Trail this year will notice they have a direct connection to the community.”
Around 40 skaters will attend the camp and compete for a roster spot.
The Smoke Eaters also handed Dylan Bowen, Nathan Browne, Taylor Armbruster, and Greyson Reitmeier their outright release earlier this month, after dealing Joel Webb, Dylan Mascarin, and Sean Davies in June – a strong indication that this year will indeed be different.
“The challenge is to learn from that and move forward, and I like to think I’ve learned my lesson to some extent and so we will take the team in a direction that is a little bit different,” said Deschenes. “I realized that to be competitive you really have to recruit properly and have players that are as ready as possible to play in the BCHL and have an impact.”
The Smoke Eaters camp starts this weekend with games going at 7 p.m. on Friday, and 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. on Sunday. The public is welcome to attend.
The Smokies exhibition schedule includes just one home game on Sept. 13 in Trail versus the Selkirk College Saints, admission $5, under-16 free. Trail plays Merritt on Sept. 5-6, and Selkirk at the Castlegar Rec Complex Sept. 12 at 7:30 p.m.