On Sunday, five Trail Smoke Eaters players will be in Calgary to compete for a spot on Team Canada West at the World Jr. A Challenge selection camp.
Smoke Eaters goalie Logan Terness, defenceman Powell Connor, and forwards Kent Johnson, Philippe Lapointe, and Owen Ozar are vying for a spot against 44 other players from the five western Jr. A leagues and hoping for the opportunity to play in the annual Jr. A Challenge against Team Canada East, USA, Russia, and the Czech Republic.
“It’s really cool,” said Terness. “It’s definitely something I wanted to do. At the start of the year, it was one of the goals I had in mind, and I really wanted to make this camp so it’s awesome to be going with four other guys.”
In total, 72 players (15 from Team Canada West) who played in the World Jr. A Challenge are currently playing in the NHL, including 2016 alumni Cale Makar, and 2015 BCHLers Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro.
In 2017, the Smoke Eaters Ross Armour and Seth Barton were selected to Team Canada West and were instrumental in helping the team to a gold medal. After dropping their opening two games, Team Canada West rallied in the quarterfinal. Armour tallied the tying and winning overtime goals against Team Canada East to keep the West alive and advance to the semifinal.
Their great play helped Team Canada West past the Czechs in the semifinal and carried them to a 5-1 victory over the U.S. in the final. Armour, a first team All Star and team leading scorer, and defenceman Barton caught the attention of many NCAA and NHL scouts. Armour is now playing at Bemidji State, and Barton, a UMass-Lowell recruit, was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the third round of the 2018 NHL Draft.
The absence of Trail’s best players because of the World Jr. A Challenge won’t be ideal for the team’s success, but that, says Smokies head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini, is secondary to the rare opportunity the Jr. A Challenge Cup offers.
“It’s such a great reflection of the program, that we can manage that for six games,” said Tambellini. “Is it going to make a difference? Probably, but again, you’re going to get five of your best players to come back after having success at a top tournament like that. These are first world problems for Jr. A teams, so we can definitely manage that.”
The Smoke Eaters are 7-2-0-1-1 in November and will look to keep rolling into December, a tough month historically for the black and orange. In both 2017 and 2018, Trail managed just three wins in 10 games in December, and in 2016 the Smoke Eaters won just once.
This year’s team is very different, and part of that bad luck can be attributed to the mid-season grind, when injuries and fatigue seem to affect every team to a degree, and the Smokies even more so due to the long travel.
The Calgary-bound Smoke Eaters players will play in Saturday’s game versus the Surrey Eagles, and will leave for the Dec. 1-3 camp after the game. If selected to Team Canada West, the players will miss six BCHL games including matches against league-leading Coquitlam Express, Langley, and Chilliwack and Interior Division rivals Wenatchee, West Kelowna and Salmon Arm.
Still, the benefits for those players attending the Challenge are undeniable, and will open the door for other Smoke Eaters players to step up.
“It will be a great opportunity for a lot of our depth players, our young guys to step up and play a bigger role, but again this is something I won’t be complaining about watching our guys at the tournament,” added Tambellini.
Of the 13 gold medal games at the World Junior A Challenge, 10 have featured at least one Canadian team. Team Canada West has won gold five times (2006, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2017), silver three times (2008, 2009, 2012) and bronze twice (2013, 2018).
The World Jr. A Challenge goes in Dawson Creek, Dec. 7 to Dec. 15.