Smokies can look back on season with satisfaction

There are fans out there that will point and say, “Once again the Smokies came up short.”

But the reality in hockey is only one team gets to end the season on a winning a note.

And when your league contains some of the best teams in Canada it makes for a hard mountain to climb.

So even though the Smokies season ended Saturday after only seven playoff games, there were still enough high points in the season to make it a success no matter how you slice it.

And perhaps no bigger example of that was last Friday on home ice in front of a huge crowd. The Smokies came to play and the stars rose to the occasion. A homegrown talent, Travis St. Denis scored three goals, stalwart goaltender Kiefer Smiley showed why he was an all-star pick and Trail pulled out the exciting win in what proved to be the final home game of the season.

Sadly it all ended on Saturday night in West Kelowna, but that still doesn’t dim the light on an impressive season.

As I jotted down some of my highlights to the season, the list kept growing to the point where I had to rethink what I considered where big moments.

It was a year of plenty of personal success for some players, team records, some new ideas in generating money for the franchise, continued strong corporate support and a healthy dose of homegrown talent, which Trail fans have come to expect.

I believe a lot of that success, on and off the ice, began back in September.

The Smokies exhibition tournament was not only the perfect appetizer for the upcoming season but put Trail on the destination map for many college scouts.

Attracting teams like Penticton and Powell River bring the credibility of the top-level teams in the league and adding an Alberta squad gives scouts and fans a glimpse of what the competition is like on the other side of the Rockies.

It really didn’t matter what the team’s record was after the three days. Instead the event had the players and fans excited about hockey.

It’s no surprise the Smokies got off to a great start in the regular season. The team went 7-3 in September and provided the boost it needed to overcome the injury bug that was waiting to hatch in October.

That September also saw Trail win three of four games during a Coastal Conference road trip.

It was finally a sign that the Smokies were going to erase the taste of awful road records from previous years.

In fact, the team went undefeated on the road in January and a February shutout victory in Penticton set a franchise record of five straight road wins.

Success at any level of hockey requires an ability to win on the road and keep pucks out of your own net.

All the tandem of Kiefer Smiley and Matt Larose did was set a new franchise record for fewest goals allowed.

Of course that record belongs to the entire team, especially the solid core of defencemen.

On that note, the team’s trades that brought the likes of Rajan Sidhu and Jake Baker to the Trail blueline and Cullen Bradshaw, Nic DeSousa and Erik Cooper to the front lines proved to fans the team was playing to win this season.

And it did win games. The 31 wins were the most in almost a decade and the third-best total ever in Trail’s 16-year BCHL history.

Owf course that success bred plenty of individual achievements.

Four players – Travis St. Denis, Sam Mellor, Joey Baker and Eric Walker – were noted by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau. St. Denis and Mellor were selected for the World Junior A Challenge.

BCHL Player of the Week awards were presented to Cullen Bradshaw, twice, Kiefer Smiley and Ryan Aynsley. Scott Jacklin and Bradshaw picked up college scholarships.

And Jacklin and Smiley were named to the Interior Conference All Star team.

You would have to go back almost 15 years to the days when Travis Roche, Steve McCarthy and Chris Bonvie gave the Smokies more than one representative on a first all-star team.

In the end, I always refer back to comments made to me by team governor Doug Jones during a meeting way back in August 1995, on the eve of the Smokies first season in the BCHL. He said the goal was to give Kootenay players a chance to play hockey near home rather than going to the Lower Mainland.

His words sounded even more concrete when you look at this year’s success.

Eight players on the team hail from the Kootenays. The team’s top three scorers were Kootenay-born players. Five players were developed in the Rossland-Trail minor hockey system.

And the shinning example was captain Paul Mailey. Despite watching his final game from the stands, Mailey continued a family legacy with the Smokies and leaves the team holding numerous longevity records including five seasons in the BCHL and most games played by a Smokie.

The wins and losses are quickly forgotten from year to year but the lasting impact the team has on the community and fans is its ability to allow homegrown talent to shine.

In that case I believe the 2010-11 edition of the Trail Smoke Eaters certainly went out on a winning note.