The Trail Smoke Eaters loss to the Vernon Vipers on Thursday may have ended their playoff run, but this year’s Smokies team restored community pride and raised hopes for an even better season in 2017-18.
Trail finished third in the BCHL Interior Division, made the playoffs for the first time in seven years, and averaged 2,000 fans per game in its five home matches of the opening and semifinal round.
“It was unfortunate the way things finished up but considering the injuries and the bodies that we had, we kind of just ran out of gas,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “It was one of those unfortunate situations that was out of our control, but considering we were a team that wasn’t picked to even make playoffs, and how well our guys responded to the community buzz and personal accolades some of our kids got and how well they did – it’s a positive step for our program and also for the kids moving on.”
The 6-2 score wasn’t indicative of how close Thursday’s match played out against the Vipers. The Smoke Eaters hit the ice at Kal Tire Place without injured players Kyle Chernenkoff, Ryan Moon, Ryan Warner, and Korbyn Chabot. Top-line, 20-year-old forward Josh Laframboise dressed and made a valiant effort to play, but his injured shoulder was too painful for the skilled player to be effective. Carter Cochrane and Kale Howarth would have sat out any regular-season game, but this was playoffs and they too played through their injuries against a hard-hitting Vipers lineup.
Trail led briefly in the second period when Vernon native Blaine Caton netted a power play goal to put Trail up 2-1. But the Vipers’ tied it 45 seconds later, and an injury to Kale Howarth midway through the period was the veritable straw that broke the camel’s back. The Vipers scored the go-ahead goal while shorthanded at 13:40, and went up 4-2 seven minutes into the third. Trail pulled goalie Zach Dyment with time winding down, but two empty netters sealed their fate.
“With Kale Howarth getting injured halfway through the second, they had four lines we had two-and-a-half, sometimes three,” said Keith. “Laframboise wasn’t playing, they just wore us down, and as the game progressed we couldn’t put together two or three shifts in a row where we were getting consistent chances.”
Trail was coming off a five-game series win against the Salmon Arm Silverbacks, while Vernon enjoyed a bye in the first round and were well rested. The Vipers took the first three games, but Trail responded with a character 5-2 victory at home on Tuesday to force a Game 5 in Vernon. Eventually, injuries and a new playoff format played their part in the Smokies demise, but in the end, they fell to a very good Vipers team that has to be favoured to take the Interior Division title with Penticton and Merritt facing off in a Game 7 semifinal on Monday.
“Us playing an extra playoff round before playing against Vernon ended up being a negative for us because we had some lingering injuries that crept into the Vernon series,” said Keith. “But Vernon, you have to give them a lot of credit, they played hard-nosed, finish-every-hit, very punishing hockey that took a toll on our guys.”
While the playoff run may have come to an end, the Smoke Eaters coach is already looking forward to next year’s group as he leaves today for a BC U16 evaluation camp in Penticton.
The Smoke Eaters will have a solid core of players returning including Ross Armour, Spencer McLean, Blaine Caton, Andre Ghantous, Braedon Tuck, Ryan Moon, and Korbyn Chabot up front. Northern Michigan commit Kale Howarth’s status is uncertain but there is a possibility the Red Deer native will return.
On the backend Tyson Slater, Ethan Martini, Troy Ring, Jeremy Lucchini, and Ryan Warner are set to return, while goaltender Linden Marshall, an RPI commit, is still a question mark. Keith also likes the upcoming affiliate players who were vital in the Smokies stretch run.
“Our AP kids did a really good job this year. (Tyler) Ghirardosi, (Brandon) Costa, Bradley Ross, Karsten Jang and Jake Yuris, all those kids should make the step up next year, so we should have a large local contingent on the Smoke Eaters.”
For graduating players like Connor Brown-Maloski, the final game was an especially difficult way to close out a four-year BCHL career. The Smokies captain led playoff scoring alongside two other graduating Smoke Eaters, Luke Santerno and Cochrane, each counting 14 points in 10 games.
“We’re a family in there and it sucks, but if you look at where we were at the start of the year and what we accomplished, you can’t look at it as a loss,” said Brown-Maloski. “We’re celebrating the year and the time we had together. It was definitely one of the better years of my junior career with the guys in that room, and I’m going to miss them.”
Other graduating players include Mitch Barker, Laframboise, and Dyment, in what was a breakout year for the Smoke Eaters. The combination of veteran leadership and youth made for an exciting season, and with a year under coach Keith’s belt, a new front office and ownership, the future looks bright for the Smoke Eaters
“It’s sad to see our 20-year-olds go,” said Keith. “But hopefully it’s like a set culture that they started and we can build on in years to come.”
Smoke Signals: Smoke Eater defenceman Mitch Stapley was sent to Salmon Arm as the player-to-be-named-later in the January deadline deal for Cochrane. Stapley, a five-foot-10, 180 pound Campbell River native netted 24 points for the Smokies, all of them assists, and is a skilled, puck-moving defenceman that will be an asset to Salmon Arm’s backend.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to lose such a character kid in Mitch Stapley,” said Keith. “The plan is to build our backend a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger, so that when we get into those hard-nosed battle-type playoff series we have a little more punishing defensive defenceman on the backend that can control things a little better.”