Trail Smoke Eaters new head coach and GM Tim Fragle expected some surprises, but didn’t foresee the wild welcome he received when he arrived in Trail last week.
While house-hunting in Rossland, a black bear introduced himself, leaving scratches and minor damage on Fragle’s vehicle. There was no food or garbage in the SUV, so just a random ‘keep your head up’ and ‘welcome to Trail’ from local wildlife.
In the age of the coronavirus, Fragle’s task will be a daunting one as he takes over from former head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. But the former Smoke Eaters player is slowly and safely re-acquainting himself with the team, the city, and its culture – and settling, in the end, on a house in Glenmerry.
“I’ve just been taking it all in, seeing how the organization works, trying to manage both with the big move our family has and getting up to speed on the current roster and what our needs are moving into next year,” said Fragle.
The Edmonton native and former NAIT coach will have to replace a dozen Smokies players that graduated or went on to NCAA and college last season. Finding replacements for the BCHL’s top scorer and MVP Kent Johnson, and leaders like captain Philippe Lapointe, Powell Connor, and Jameson Murray is just the start of the rebuild. Fragle, however, says he likes the returning talent and is up for the challenge.
“I look at the guys coming back, from what I’ve observed and been told, and watching a number of games; I still think there is enough to say that it’s not going to be considered a rebuild. Good teams in this league have turnover year after year and if you see the way teams have been trending I think that’s our goal. So we aspire to be a good team in this division and just settling for a rebuild is not in our mindset.”
The Smoke Eaters will have their share of highend talent return including forwards Owen Ozar, Max Kryski, Matt Osadick, Jaden Senkoe, Chase Dafoe, Connor Sweeney, and Braden Costello; defencemen Trevor Isaksson, Kyle Budvarson, Cody Schiavon, and Kyle Pow, and Logan Terness in goal.
Unfortunately, eight of those are 20-year-olds, which exceeds the BCHL’s five-player limit for overage players.
“Our roster is a little heavy with 20-year-olds, so we have to make some decisions,” explained Fragle. “With that, we hope to strengthen or add some depth on defence, because they lost some really good defencemen from last year, and lost a boatload of offence too. So if we can add depth at both positions with guys that have played junior hockey, that would certainly help our team.”
The Smoke Eaters also have committed at least eight players from the Major Midget and Canadian Sports School Hockey League ranks to compliment the returning players. Although, it remains uncertain when Trail Memorial Centre ice will be available, players who reside in larger centres have been able to work out on and off the ice.
“I see there’s lots of potential in a lot of our returning guys to make that next step,” said Fragle. “And you need that in junior hockey. In my time at Sherwood Park (AJHL), we invested in some 16 and 17 year olds, and they really pay off at 18 and 19.”
In addition to the uncertainty that comes with the pandemic, BCHL teams are also embracing a whole new platform. With the addition of the Cranbrook Bucks, the league will move to a two conference configuration with a unique schedule.
“I guess until we see and know what that schedule is going to look like it’s a little uneasy, I’m a planner,” said Fragle. “If I could look at our year plan, by this time we’d already have our schedule, you could make those types of plans for your training. But right now we’re just waiting for the schedule, and then boom we can get to work on when we want to implement things.”
The Western Hockey League and the KIJHL submitted an Oct. 2 return to play plan, however, the BCHL has yet to name a startup date. Hockey Canada announced last week that it will allow each league to make that decision based on their respective health scenarios.
What a return to hockey will look like for the BCHL and the Trail Smoke Eaters is still uncertain, but Fragle is hopeful.
“Our first step right now is to hopefully get some camps going. We’re hopeful we can have an ID camp, which is a good step, because I know there are a lot of kids out there waiting to decide which program they’re going to go to, while all these camps have come to a screeching halt.”
And he is more optimistic than he was a month ago, in the midst of the pandemic.
“I think we have to be understanding; it might not be a normal year from a players and coach’s perspective,” added Fragle. “We may have to pivot, if our games are all in-division or play less games, we just have to spin a positive and be happy we’re getting a chance to play hockey still, given everything that’s going on.”