Ancient Greek drama can’t compete with the emotional roller coaster the Trail Smoke Eaters have played out the past few months.
Well, maybe one.
The “Iphigenia,” by Euripides is a tragedy where the Greek King, Agamemnon, is compelled to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the gods so they’d allow the 1,000 ships to set sail for Troy to fight an epic and protracted battle. The metaphor being, Smokies coach Nick Deschenes had to be sacrificed (fired) so the hockey gods would let the Smokies sail into the playoffs after an epic and prolonged absence.
Maybe a stretch, but when the axe came down on the Trail Smoke Eater head coach and GM last week with just five games remaining in the season, and the team still in the mix for a playoff spot, I was surprised and a little saddened.
Something sinister happened after Christmas that stalled a Smokies team that was poised if not destined by the gods for a playoff berth. The Smokies lost 14 of 16 games in the New Year, and crucial losses to Surrey (the last place team in the league) and Prince George (second last) didn’t help, but the devastating setback to Powell River, blowing a three-goal lead in the final five minutes, was pure agony. And once the losses mounted – it became clear, the Smokies were cursed. I doubt anyone killed the sacred deer of Artemis, but for some reason, the team couldn’t get back on track.
The action taken by president Tom Gawryletz and the Smokies executive was a message to the fans, to the players, and the coaching staff, that what was happening had to stop, that going forward without Deschenes, whose contract was up at the end of March, was better than going forward with him.
The firing was a necessary evil, born out of necessity. And to borrow a Greek proverb, “Not even the gods fight necessity.”
Nick wasn’t your typical “player’s coach,” and for some players his expulsion will be a welcome change to the chilly climate of the Cominco Arena. Deschenes was cerebral, unapologetically tough on those whom he deemed underachieving and/or lazy. But he tried desperately to squeeze as much effort as he could out of a team not exactly saturated in talent. He was a fierce competitor, wore his whale-size heart on his sleeve, and didn’t pull many punches when it came to expressing himself to the refs – often to his team’s detriment.
I’d heard his communication skills with his players and the Smokies executive were lacking. But players (or owners) don’t have to like their coach for teams to be successful. In the case of Scotty Bowman, many hated the winningest coach in NHL history, but they always couched their jaded remarks with an admission of respect.
I’m not saying the Smokies players didn’t respect Deschenes, but they definitely weren’t playing like they did the second half of the season. And for that to happen 30-40 games in, it’s the players who must be held accountable. With four games remaining and five points out, the team will need a Trojan horse to make the playoffs, but you never know.
Deschenes was handed a difficult task when he came over from the Grand Forks Border Bruins and took over the reins in November 2013 in what was essentially his second coaching job. Yet, his teams improved in wins every year, and the Alberta native made significant strides, focusing on high-tech teaching strategies and introducing systems that were sophisticated and successful when applied.
His recruiting skills brought in exciting talent like far off prospects Charlie Zuccarini, Bailey MacBurnie, and Nick Halloran, and thanks in no small part to Nick, more than 25 players benefitted from scholarships over those two-and-a-half years.
He helped the Trail Smoke Eaters engage the community, and genuinely cared about his players, the Silver City, and its hockey culture and rich sporting tradition. He hoped to guide the Smokies into the playoffs and tried his best to make that happen.
I like Nick. He always returned my calls, which had to be hard at times especially after a lengthy losing streak. And, to me at least, he always had lots to say, sometimes too much when it came to editing his comments – but for a sportswriter that is a good problem to have.
Coaching is a tough business, with little job security; and after over 27 months of talking to the former coach almost weekly, I’ll miss him.
Good luck Nick.