Every new season brings hope and optimism, and despite its pre-season record, the Trail Smoke Eaters have 25 really good reasons for fans to be positive for the 2023-24 BCHL campaign.
Head coach and GM Tim Fragle confirmed that the team is down to its mandatory 25-man roster heading into its home opener against the Cranbrook Bucks on Friday and the West Kelowna Warriors on Saturday.
“We had 35 to start camp and kept 32 for our six exhibition games, and we rotated lineups through those 32 players to get good looks and give kids more than just one game,” said Fragle. “We gave players two to three games each for a proper evaluation.”
Trail went 1-and-6 in the preseason, but every game was close, and the team showed a competitive edge and work ethic that bodes well for the regular season.
“Every game going into the third period the game was tied, so we had a chance to win all those games, we were in the mix, so that was a positive,” explained Fragle. “As we transition to the regular season we have to find ways to win games 3-2 and 4-3 versus being on the other side of those.”
Fragle recognizes that their is ample room for improvement, but likes the mix of veteran and rookie players. Trail will have a solid veteran presence in its line up with 12 returning Smoke Eaters as well as veteran additions like forward Callas Pierce from Prince George, and forward Jason Stefanek and defenceman Lucas Marshall acquired from the Wenatchee Wild after the team made the jump to the WHL.
Up front, veteran players Mathieu Cobetto-Roy, Ethan Mann, Ridge Dawson, Josh Schenk, Adam Marshall, Rhett Hamilton, Adam Parsons, Max Potvin, and Trail product Judah Makway will lead the way.
“We are definitely happy with the returning group,” said Fragle. “We are happy with our depth with returning players, and even some of the players we acquired that have Junior experience from other teams.”
Fragle also confirmed that Trail’s Nathan Dominici has made the cut and will add more local flavour to the team.
“Where I think our strength is, we feel like we are deeper with our forward group, and should be able to score throughout our line up.”
Three-year veteran defenceman Ethan Warrener led all skaters in scoring in the preseason with a goal and six assists in four games and along with Alec Whipple are the only returning defencemen from last year.
Rookie standouts include goalie Ryan Parker who faced 49 shots in the 4-3 loss to Cranbrook on Saturday, and up front 2006 born players Gryphon Bucci and Chase Stefanek came in and impressed the Smoke Eaters coaching staff.
Another rookie, Sacred Heart University commit Jack DesRuisseaux, also made an impact scoring three goals and an assist in five games for the Smoke Eaters.
Following close games against Vernon, Penticton, Prince George and Cranbrook, and as an independent Junior A league this season, Fragle has no doubt the Interior and Coastal Conferences will be competitive, and the talent reach another level.
“There is going to be a lot of parity, no question, a year of transition with rule changes and roster changes, there are going to be some challenges and some exciting things in terms of the calibre of hockey,” said Fragle.
“I even noticed in the pre-season, you could tell it’s another step up from what it was last year. The availability to bring players in from all over the globe, it’s a quick pace game out there now.”
The Smoke Eaters face off against Kootenay rival Cranbrook in the home opener on Friday night and play West Kelowna on Saturday. Fragle says the team’s expectations are to compete every night and strive for a top-four placing in the eight team Interior Conference this season.
“We have to take advantage of home ice, that’s something we haven’t done well the last two years,” said Fragle. “So starting both at home, we have to find a way to get four points.”
The puck drops at the Trail Memorial Centre at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.