The Trail Smoke Eaters roll into Penticton on Friday to kick off the BCHL Showcase Festival presented by Bauer at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
The annual event, formerly known as the BCHL-Bauer Showcase, ushered in a few changes to this year’s program, including the new and somewhat unwieldy handle. This year, the event will be held in two cities, Chilliwack and Penticton, with games in Chilliwack going Wednesday and Thursday, and the matches in Penticton on Friday and Saturday.
The Showcase will also include a Hockey House in Penticton where fans, parents and kids will be able to participate in fun and interactive activities. The BCHL is also hosting a Hockey Panel which will feature former NHL players and current and past BCHL dads Mike Richter, Doug Weight and Dixon Ward.
“What we want to do with this event is make it more than just hockey, ” said BCHL Executive Director Steven Cocker. “We feel it’s incredibly important to engage our fans and showcase our communities.”
The seven Interior Division teams play in Penticton, in addition to the Mainland Division’s Prince George Spruce Kings, to make it an even eight teams.
Merritt, however, will play in both Showcases, going to Chilliwack Thursday to play the Alberni Valley Bulldogs, then making the trip to Penticton for Friday’s match up against the Smoke Eaters.
The event draws NCAA and NHL scouts from across North America, giving them the opportunity to evaluate the BCHL’s young up-and-coming talent. While it can be a distraction for some, Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini isn’t too worried.
“I think for a lot of teams it’s very overwhelming for players, there’s a lot of people in the building. But our group is used to playing in front of six college scouts every night. The other week in Trail we had six NHL teams in the building, so our guys are more used to having that in the building then other teams, so I don’t think it will be as much of an issue for our group.”
Trail opens with a match against the 2-5-0-0 Centennials, a team coming off a thrilling 2-1 overtime victory over the Wenatchee Wild on Saturday
Former Smoke Eaters goalie Tanner Marshall backstopped the Cents to the win, stopping 24 shots for his first victory in a Merritt jersey. Marshall started last season with the Smoke Eaters, but with limited playing time behind starter Adam Marcoux, the 19-year-old Kelowna native was traded to the Brooks Bandits where he won a Canadian Jr. A Championship title in May.
The Bandits traded Marshall to Merritt on Sept. 16 in exchange for futures. Marshall recorded a 12-0 record for the Bandits last season with a 1.33 goals against average and .925 save percentage.
Like the Smokies, the Centennials got off to a rough 0-3 start, but bolstered their line up with the addition of Tyson Galloway, 16, after a tryout with the WHL Kamloops Blazers, and recently acquired forward Josh Kagan from the Cowichan Valley Capitals. Kagan is on a point-per-game clip so far this season, and is tied with Slovakian forward Daniel Tkac (4G,3A) in points.
As for special teams, the Smoke Eaters have a decisive edge going 6-for-39 (15.4 per cent) on the power play and 87.1 per cent on the penalty kill. Merritt scored on 12.9 per-cent (4-for-31) of its chances with the extra man, while owning a 70.39 per-cent kill rate on the PK.
The last time the team’s met was on Mar. 8 for Game 5 of the opening round of the Interior Division playoffs, when Trail upset the no.2 seed Centennials in five games with a 4-2 victory.
With Trevor Isaksson and Philippe Lapointe out with injury, Trail’s recent addition, former WHLer Jameson Murray, certainly helps. The Smoke Eaters shut out Prince George 3-0, scoring a power-play goal, and going a perfect 3-for-3 on the PK in Murray’s first game on Saturday.
“You see right away what the depth of adding a piece like Jameson Murray does,” said Tambellini. “It takes one of the rookies out of the line up and replaces it with a six-foot-four, right-shot experienced defenceman. Just by adding that next layer insulates our young guys in the lineup defensively, our penalty killing – I don’t even know if we gave up three shots on the night – so just that next layer of adding that piece limits scoring chances, moving pucks quicker to our forwards, and it was a great example on Saturday night what that looks like.”
The Smoke Eaters face the 3-4-2-0 Spruce Kings for the second time in a week, and will look for the same result this Saturday. After a rough 0-5-1-0 start, the Smoke Eaters, offensively and defensively, seemed to have turned a corner, allowing just three goals in their past three games, while scoring 14. They’ll look to continue that trend at the BCHL Showcase Festival this weekend.
“It’s a different weekend for sure, a neutral site game, there’s a lot of teams, and a lot of people, so it’s kind of about limiting distractions for that 48 hour period and try to make it seem as normal as possible,” added Tambellini. “We just have to keep playing well, and finding ways to win hockey games.”
Trail faces off against Merritt at 4 p.m. Friday and again on Saturday vs Prince George at 1 p.m. at the South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton.