A resilient Trail Smoke Eaters team reached the halfway point of their 20-game season with a 5-3 win over the Cranbrook Bucks on Monday.
Smokies rookie forward Quinn Disher scored twice, Ryan Helliwell had a goal and two helpers, and Noah Wakeford and Justin Ross rounded out the scoring in a four-goal second period outburst. Kalen Szeto also added three assists for the Smokies’ fifth victory in 10 games – all played in just 17 days.
The Smoke Eaters have a welcome four-day rest until they hit the ice on Friday vs the Vees and play their final 10 games in 16 days.
For Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Tim Fragle, the pace and the isolation have been difficult for everyone.
“It’s been a heck of a grind let me tell ya,” said Fragle. “I’m the guy who’s coaching but for the boys it’s been physically and mentally exhausting to play this amount of games in such a short time. But we can’t complain, we get to play.”
The team is staying on the same floor of a Penticton hotel and following strict COVID rules for their bubble, which prohibits them from visiting their families, businesses, or even a golf course on their day off.
“We can’t even eat as a team,” said Fragle. “They have a meal room where three guys at a time go in and get meals then come back to their room and eat. The only thing we’re allowed to do is walk outside to the rink and back, but they don’t want us going to stores or anything like that, so we’re pretty isolated.”
There is also the monotony of playing the same two teams, Penticton and Cranbrook, night after night. Still after a slow start, a young Smoke Eaters team have won three of their last four, including a 3-2 victory over Penticton last week.
“The first four games we weren’t very good, we only won one of our first four, but since then we’ve been better,” said Fragle. “Getting the big win against Penticton helped, then we played them better the next game (but lost 3-0). We actually thought we played them better that game than we did when we beat them.
“In the last five or six games we’ve been happier with the way we’ve been going.”
Trail lost a number of graduating players from last season, and then took a substantial hit this year when veterans Owen Ozar, Connor Sweeney and Cody Schiavon opted for the U.S. Junior leagues and NCAA hockey.
However, Trail’s youth movement bodes well for next season with rookies already making an impression. Players like Disher, 17, who leads the Smokies in goals with six and points, 10, and Brady Hunter, 3-3-6, have quietly carved their niche into the line up.
“We recruited him (Disher) when I just came in last year,” said Fragle. “The staff had him targeted, and we knew we had an offensive guy there, we just didn’t know if it was going to be this year or not. He puts himself in the right spot, and he’s a shooter, he likes to shoot and so he’s had a strong first 10 games.
“Another guy who has stepped up is Brady Hunter, he’s played very well and I like the way he can play centre or wing.”
The Smoke Eaters have 10 games remaining and will play them all in 16 days, for a total of 20 games in just over a month.
Given the cancellation of the WHL playoffs, a BCHL post-season is unlikely. Nevertheless, the players are adapting and embracing the chance to play and prepare for a more hopeful next season.
“They are dealing with it okay, because it’s like hey it’s an extra long road trip and hockey players love to go on road trips,” said Fragle. “But us as coaches, the first week was alright, but now it’s getting old.
“But we are getting tested weekly, so we have had three tests and everybody tested negative so we are going along good here – and we’re going to get through it.”
The Smoke Eaters are off until Friday when they play the Penticton Vees at 7 p.m. at the South Okanagan Event Centre.