Trail Smoke Eaters owners Rich and Annie Murphy may be out of the country, but they certainly aren’t out of touch, as they patiently await a plan of action for a return to play this season.
“Obviously we are planning on playing this next year, when that start will be, we don’t know that yet,” Rich Murphy told the Times from his home in Minnesota. “But I’m in contact with the league every week with meetings, and we’re waiting for Hockey Canada to give us some direction.”
Hockey Canada issued an open letter to all hockey organizations last week, however, it contained few details regarding a return to action in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“As provinces and territories phase in a plan to reopen in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are questions about when hockey will return, and how it will look when it does,” read the release.
“Hockey Canada and its Members are diligently working on a multifaceted return-to-hockey plan that will happen when, and only when, provincial and territorial governments and health authorities deem it safe to do so.”
Meanwhile, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says the league and the NHL Players’ Association have agreed on a return-to-play format in the event the 2019-20 season can resume.
The 24-team plan would see the top-4 clubs in the Eastern and Western Conference play two mini round-robin tournaments to determine seeding for the playoffs.
The other eight teams in each conference would play best-of-five “play-in” series – No. 5 versus No. 12, No. 6 versus No. 11, No. 7 versus No. 10, and No. 8 versus No. 9 – to determine the 16 clubs left standing in the playoffs.
As the COVID curve flattens, particularly in BC, organizations like the BCHL, KIJHL, and Greater Trail Minor Hockey are looking for guidance on how to proceed come September.
“We’re starting to open up here in the U.S. so we’re excited to get back and get going,” said Murphy. “We’re looking to get the office there in Trail back open in June and sell some souvenirs. Hopefully we’ll get some news from the league, from Hockey Canada of what we can do and move towards a season here.”
Hockey Canada says it is pursuing a plan that, “includes everything from health and safety regulations to communications, seasonal structure, customer engagement and national teams.”
Although the Murphys are unable to travel across the border due to the pandemic, they are directing the Smoke Eaters organization from their home in Minnesota. The team is coming off one of its best seasons in franchise history, going 36-17-2-2-1, and averaging over 2,000 fans per game. Trail also committed a dozen players to NCAA Div. 1 hockey this past season, and just announced the hiring of the Smokies new head coach and GM, Tim Fragle.
“The reality is Trail’s the place to be,” said Murphy. “People want to be here, players want to be here, and coaches want to coach here, universities want kids that play in Trail. So from that aspect, we don’t have any problem getting players or coaches to come here.”
The NHL/NHLPA Return to Play Committee hashed out details of what the game will look like when and if it’s allowed to return this summer.
The league announced Monday it hopes to move to Phase 2 of its return-to-play protocol, including the opening of team facilities and allowing groups of up to six players on the ice at one time under strict guidelines, early next month. Phase 3 would be training camps starting no sooner than July 1, while Phase 4 would be the resumption of play.
Other professional sports, like NASCAR, Major League Baseball, UFC, and the PGA, have already started or set a date and have produced very specific guidelines.
As for the BCHL and similar organizations, the NHL template for protocol and testing is something for Hockey Canada to consider, and will leave teams like the Smoke Eaters a little more optimistic for a return to the ice in the fall.
“Canada is quite a bit more conservative than the U.S. right now, so that’s my concern,” said Murphy. “But the Murphy family is dedicated to providing hockey in Trail and when we get the go ahead we’re going to move forward.”
With files from the Canadian Press.