After more than a month of preparation, the Trail Smoke Eaters are itching to open their 2020-21 exhibition season on Saturday at home against the Cranbrook Bucks.
In the age of COVID, the BCHL postponed the start of its season to Dec. 1, but the league embarked on an extended exhibition series that started last weekend in the Okanagan, and kicks off for Trail Saturday, Oct. 3 at the Cominco Arena and goes until Nov. 27.
“I think given everything, it’s been the longest training camp ever, so they’re chomping at the bit,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Tim Fragle. “It’s good to play a game for real when you turn on the score clock, so I think everyone is pretty excited.”
However, one player whose name is conspicuously absent from the Trail roster is that of veteran forward Owen Ozar. The Prince Albert native was named the Smoke Eaters captain earlier this summer, but decided not to return to Trail or the BCHL.
“He has decided to go to Waterloo, (Iowa) of the USHL (United States Hockey League),” said Fragle. “I’ll be honest, we were completely caught off guard by it, and it seems like it may be a bit out of character, but we don’t really know what the decision was based on.
“I mean it’s definitely safer here than anywhere else.”
Ozar, who finished fourth in league scoring last season, is an unfortunate loss, but one that won’t distract the team for long. Fortunately for Trail, U.S. imports like Chase Dafoe, Jaden Senkoe and Connor Sweeney went through a two-week quarantine and will suit up on Saturday.
Trail will dress 20 skaters from a roster of 30 vs the Bucks, but will be changing the lineup almost every game to get the players into game shape.
“There will be a large contingent of guys coming in and out of the line up, so there’ll be a mixture of first and second year guys. We’ll do that for our first number of games, obviously, we want to see everyone get in the game.”
The Smoke Eaters coaching staff hasn’t been able to scout the visiting Bucks, who will make their BCHL debut Saturday, but they will get a heavy dose of their East Kootenay rival over the 12-game exhibition season.
“They haven’t played any games either, so we’ll kind of piece it together as we go, but we’ll certainly have no shortage of information on them as we only play them six times this month.”
ViaSport, the provincial authority of amateur sport, also approved changes to its bench protocol on Sept. 25, so teams will be able to accommodate all skaters and coaches on the bench without having to modify the on-ice game.
Yet, one thing that can’t be helped is that the match will be the first in Trail history that won’t allow fans in the seats.
Still, that doesn’t mean Trail fans won’t be engaged.
The Trail Hockey Club Society has found a way to sell 50/50 tickets online; the Smoke Eaters and HockeyTV are selling online ticket packages that allow fans to watch all the games at a substantial discount; the Smokies quickly sold out of a couple thousand custom-made masks; and young players have been filling up the Smoke Eaters minor hockey skills camps.
“The masks sold out in a hurry, so that was a good indication that people are still thinking of the Smoke Eaters and the need to have masks,” said Fragle. “Had we known, we obviously would have had a bigger order.
“The other thing has been the success of our skill camps. We’ve been doing camps for about eight weeks and we’ve had great support from local minor hockey players attending multiple camps.”
Despite the exhibition status, the game will be a welcome return after the Smoke Eaters 2019-20 season came to an abrupt end in March. Trail had just eliminated the Prince George Spruce Kings in four straight, and were poised for the semifinal round of the Interior Divison playoff when COVID-19 forced the league to shut down.
The Smokies met with the City of Trail to finalize protocols, but hope to invite a limited number of fans back to the 2,500 seat capacity Cominco Arena sooner than later.
“We plan to do a full setup of HockeyTV, so the fans can at least watch the game and go from there. The real debate is how many fans you can have at the rink outside the actual game itself and we’re just waiting for clarification on that.”
The Smoke Eaters-Bucks game starts at 7 p.m. Saturday. Fans can go to HockeyTV.com to register for access to all the games online and save $80 if signed up by Oct. 14.