The Trail Smoke Eaters are staying positive, patient, and prepared – for whenever the BCHL season starts.
The Smoke Eaters were on a roll when the extended exhibition season came to an abrupt end Nov. 23, due to the new COVID non-travel restrictions put in place by the provincial health office (PHO).
Trail had won four straight games, including 7-6 and 5-0 victories over the Merritt Centennials, a 2-1 triumph over the Prince George Spruce Kings, and a 6-5 win over Cranbrook Bucks.
“We played three games in seven nights there, just before things got put on pause, and it felt like a bit of a season, playing in Merritt, then playing Merritt back at home, then playing in Cranbrook the Saturday before,” said Tim Fragle, Smoke Eaters head coach and GM. “We were getting into a bit of a groove and felt good about where our game was going. Then, obvioulsy the pause hits us, so there was lots of questions from our players about what it will look like.”
Despite the two-week hiatus, the team’s preparation has not stopped. The Smoke Eaters have been active on the ice and off, with two daily practices, workouts, and scrimmages.
“We’ve been keeping going with some intrasquad games and working on key things,” said Fragle. “We also spent time working on some position-specific training, a little more training off the ice that you wouldn’t normally be able to do during the season, right.
“As coaches we’ve been really tasked with thinking outside the box to keep things fresh but also take advantage of the extra time.”
All BCHL teams had to forego the rest of the exhibition schedule until restrictions are lifted, potentially on Dec. 7. The BCHL announced they would start back up on Dec. 8, but there has been no schedule released or plan to return to play.
League Executive Director Steven Cocker said that “should the season start be delayed past Dec. 8, the players that choose to go home for the holidays will be required to adhere to travel guidelines, including going into isolation for 14 days prior to joining their team. ”
The uncertainty is nothing new, and while not-knowing is frustrating, the Smoke Eaters head coach keeps the message simple and succinct.
“We tell them to be ready for when the season starts, and right now our goal is December 8 and hopefully we’ll hear something sooner than later if that’s realistic or not,” said Fragle. “But we have to be ready for that, and that’s been the message, ‘Let’s be ready,’ because we could be a week away from starting the season.”
The Smoke Eaters skated to a 7-2 record in the exhibition season and are carrying 25 players on the roster, the new maximum for the BCHL.
Veteran players like Connor Sweeney (10 pts), Noah Wakeford (8 pts), Chase Dafoe (7 pts) and Cody Schiavon (7 pts) led the way, and rookie additions like Quinn Disher, Zack Feaver, and Cameron Moger stood out for many who tuned in to HockeyTV to catch the Smoke Eaters games.
“We have a good hard-nose physical team, we’ve got some size, and our forechecking game has come a long way the last few games, we started to generate some offence.”
Fragle was particularly impressed with incoming goalie Cayden Hamming. The 17-year-old Vernon native and former BCMML Okanagan Rocket earned the shutout vs Merritt and was outstanding in backing up starter Logan Terness.
“Cayden Hamming has come in and played really well in his exhibition season so far and really pushed Logan.”
As of press time on Wednesday, no new restrictions or extensions had come down from the provincial health office, so like many sports organizations, the Smoke Eaters and the BCHL remain in a holding pattern.
Regardless, Smoke Eaters head of hockey and business operations Craig Clare told the Times that the team is ready whenever they are able, and will be introducing the players to the community through social media this month.
The Smoke Eaters are also taking innovative steps to promote the players at the NCAA level.
“We’re sending videos to U.S. colleges and universities so they can tune in and watch, because at the end of the day it’s about development and moving players on,” said Clare. “We’re trying to be creative and get our players’ videos out to everyone.”
As for the shortened exhibition season, Clare says it was productive.
“It was nice that we got to mix in a couple games with Merritt and P.G. to break up the games against Cranbrook, but we were very thankful that we had a team like Cranbrook close to us, so we were able to get that many games in.”
As for the Kootenay Cup, when asked if the Smoke Eaters could claim victory because they led the best-of-seven series 3-2? Clare wasn’t quite there yet.
“No, we won’t,” he laughed. “I guess we’ll have to push that to next year, but I won’t claim victory, no.”