Tight Lines: ‘Last Post’ for Smokie coach

Sports editor Jim Bailey weighs in on the recent dismissal of Smoke Eater coach Bill Birks.

The firing of a head coach always comes with a measure of regret and recrimination.

It means the team is underperforming and/or simply not responding to the coach and his system. Invariably it is the coach that takes the fall. Sometimes it takes a few years, and other times as with the Philadelphia Flyers’ Peter Laviolette this season, three  games, but make no mistake, it will happen.

In the case of Trail Smoke Eater coach Bill Birks, it took  a five-game losing streak to precipitate his demise. Yet, in just over two years with the team, Birks registered 41 wins 79 losses, two ties, and nine OT losses, not a stellar record but then again Trail has had its challenges in attracting players, local or otherwise.

Did the executive make the wrong decision in extending the coach’s contract for a year, and then firing him 15 games into the season?

Maybe. But there comes a time when that is the only recourse. Unfortunately, they now have to pay out his contract  and dredge a shallow coaching pool for an available replacement.

It would be nice, but unlikely, if Barry Zanier or even Craig Clair would step into the position. Both are eminently qualified, however, their day jobs will undoubtedly get in the way of a full-time commitment.

Perhaps the real question worth asking is what caused a team that got off to a seemingly decent start, tank so irretrievably?

The injury to Adam Todd was a big loss, and the team hasn’t won since. Sometimes an injury to a key guy can mess with the team’s confidence. Dustin Nikkel has been good in his stead, it’s just one of those intangibles that wreak havoc on a team’s psyche.

At other times a coach “loses the players,” and no matter what he does to try to motivate them, the team spirals into a netherworld of frustration, which simply serves to exacerbate poor play. I’m not saying that was the case with Birks and the Smokies, I mean he managed to wring every ounce of effort out of last year’s Smoke Eaters and just miss the playoffs in the final week of play.

Birks is a good coach and his players worked hard for him. He wasn’t the easiest person to interview. He was moody, gruff, and cantankerous at times, but he was always candid, honest, and open – rare commodities in sports these days, and I couldn’t help but respect and like him.

In any event, a coaching change rarely makes a team better – unless you are Patrick Roy in Colorado. It is a way to shake things up. Yet, it hasn’t  worked for the Smokies – yet – a team that has now lost seven straight and fallen to 4-11-1-1.

The one question that remains then is – do the Smokies have the talent to compete?

I think they do.

However, certain players need to step up and be the player we keep expecting them to be. It is a team game, but individual players do make a difference, and every one of the Smoke Eaters has to be accountable for the product on and off the ice – unfortunately for Birks, he had to pay.