There’s a renewed sense of excitement and optimism around the rink, as about 60 players get set to hit Cominco ice today for the opening of the Trail Smoke Eaters Main Camp.
Players arrived Sunday and Monday for registration, a brief skate, fitness testing, and orientation in preparation for a competitive camp and an opportunity to join the new era of Smoke Eater hockey.
“Everyone’s ready to go, and compete for spots,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Cam Keith, who with one season under his belt, is more comfortable and confident heading into the 2017 training camp and BCHL campaign.
“I’m a little less nervous. Last year, I didn’t know any of the players, hadn’t seen anyone play before, so everything was either a pleasant surprise or the other way around. I don’t think I’m going to be as surprised this year. I know most of the local kids really well and all our commits and veterans from last year.”
The Nelson native was hired in June of 2016 and joined the Smokies a month prior to the Smoke Eater Camp. After spending two years in Cincinnati as an assistant coach with the Cyclones of the ECHL, and 10 years playing professionally, Keith looked forward to a return home, and coaching his former team.
The rookie head coach then led the Smoke Eaters to their first playoff appearance in seven years and a 10-point improvement in the standings to finish in third place in the BCHL Interior division. Filling out this year’s roster will still be a challenge, yet, Keith’s familiarity with the players and prospects gives him a leg up on last season.
“I’m more familiar with the landscape and how our team was last year, basically (I want) the same kind of team – hard working, big, tough, strong,” said Keith. “Last year I didn’t get the chance to build the team, the team was already in place … I get a chance this year to bring back the kids I wanted. I also have that culture installed, the veterans know what to expect from my coaching style and they can kind of mentor the younger players and everyone kind of feeds off it.”
The Smoke Eaters have 13 players returning from last year’s squad, and a half-dozen committed players, which only leaves a few positions open. Many of the veteran and potential Smokies enjoyed an early start to the season, scrimmaging in the Champions Hockey School with AHL players Connor and Kellen Jones and Travis St. Denis, as well as numerous Junior, NCAA and CIS players.
“It was unbelievable,” said Keith. “I think it helped a lot of Trail kids, local kids making pretty big jumps in their games, and then I don’t know how many Smoke Eater guys come in like Troy Ring and Kale Howarth, Blaine Caton and those players who really upped their game. There’s a lot of Trail kids coming into the system, it was like a main camp really, the compete level and how fast it was, it was a great precursor.”
For second-year player Andre Ghantous, the high-calibre hockey was a great start to the season, and the California native, who graduated at J. L. Crowe in June, returns to the Smoke Eaters camp with high expectations.
“I’m really excited,” said Ghantous. “I’m definitely looking forward to this upcoming season. I’m a little more comfortable, not as nervous, and trying to be a leader for the new guys coming into the league.”
Ghantous will be joined by returning veterans Ross Armour, Spencer McLean, Ryan Moon, Blaine Caton, Kale Howarth, Braedon Tuck, Korbyn Chabot, and Ryan Murphy up front, and third-year Smokie Jeremy Lucchini, Kyle Chernenkoff, Ethan Martini, and Troy Ring on the blue line.
“We have a good core group of guys coming back and we’ve signed some new good guys for this upcoming season, so I’m definitely looking forward to it,” said Ghantous. “I’m excited for the season.”
With a solid core of veterans, a key trade for goaltender Brandon Wells earlier this summer, and committed local players like Tyler Ghirardosi and Karsten Jang, the Smoke Eaters are poised for a breakout season and a much-improved product on the ice and in the stands.
And the Smoke Eaters will need to be better in an Interior Division that now includes last year’s regular-season champion Wenatchee Wild, in addition to perennial powerhouse and Fred Page Cup champion, the Penticton Vees.
The Smoke Eaters will get a taste of what to expect from the Wild when the Trail team visits Wenatchee on Friday and Saturday in its opening exhibition matches. Keith says he will take 25 players to Wenatchee and play four-period games so each team has a better opportunity to evaluate their players.
The Smokies Camp starts today with Team 1 playing Team 2 at 10 a.m. and Team 3 versus Team 4 at 11:30 a.m.
See Scoreboard Pg. 9 for full camp schedule.