Trail Smoke Eaters welcome Cranbrook Bucks to the BCHL

Another Kootenay team in the BCHL creates natural rivalry for Trail Smoke Eaters

For the Trail Smoke Eaters, the Cranbrook Bucks are a welcome addition of to the BCHL.

Geographically, Trail is one of the league outliers and somewhat isolated, but the addition of another Kootenay franchise about three hours away is an exciting prospect for the future.

“Right away it gives us a rivalry in the Kootenays,” said Smoke Eaters head of hockey operations Craig Clare. “I think for us, it’s important, and it’s important for Cranbrook as well to work together and form that rivalry. We’re very happy.”

Related read: Cranbrook Bucks expansion franchise joins BCHL

The league announced the inclusion of the 18th BCHL franchise on Tuesday morning with majority owner and president Nathan Lieuwen, a former Kootenay Ice goaltender, making the announcement at Western Financial Place in Cranbrook on Tuesday.

Cranbrook was left without a junior team when the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice moved to Winnipeg this past season and there was much speculation on when it would get a new franchise. The history of hockey in the East Kootenay city runs deep as Cranbrook also competed in the Junior B Kootenay International Junior Hockey League (KIJHL) as the Cranbrook Colts from 1971 to 1991 and then joined the Junior A Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League before folding in 1998 to make way for the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League (WHL).

In June, KIJHL president Larry Martel said that Cranbrook’s return to the Jr. B league made the most sense.

He touted the history of the KIJHL in Cranbrook and the run that the former Colts franchise had in the 1980s. Starting in 1981, the Colts won six league championships in a row and four Cyclone Taylor Cups as the province’s top Jr. B team.

“Their run through the 80’s was amazing,” Martel said. “It would be nice to see KI hockey back in Cranbrook. Many local minor hockey players would be given a chance to stay at home and start their junior hockey careers there.”

Related read: KIJHL interested in Cranbrook presence

There was also the possibility that a Cranbrook team would join the Alberta Junior Hockey League as many of its sports affiliations trend eastward rather than through western BC.

For the Smoke Eaters, however, the addition of an 18th team to the BCHL and likely an eighth team to the Interior Division was the best option for the league.

“Going into the league meetings, I was curious how the league would respond to the situation and the opportunity, but it was pretty much unanimous that the BCHL saw this as a great market for hockey, and we can’t turn those markets away from the BCHL so it’s a great opportunity for the league,” said Clare.

Cranbrook will join the BCHL for the 2020-21 season, and play in Western Financial Place. They will likely play in the Interior Division but whether that will stay as one division consisting of eight teams or be realigned has yet to be determined.

“We’re probably going to have an interior division that Cranbrook fits into,” BCHL commissioner Chris Hebbs told the Cranbrook Townsman. “We may stay with three divisions: Interior, Lower Mainland and Island. But I would also ask our competition committee to come back with some ideas where maybe there are four divisions, some six-team divisions, some four-team divisions.

“But that’s going to be decided by the hockey minds and that will be announced with in the next three months.”

Joining Lieuwen among the ownership group is Scott Niedermayer, a Cranbrook native and NHL Hall of Fame defenceman, and Adam Cracknell, another former Ice player.

“Not knowing the market but knowing Cranbrook as a hockey town, they’ve had great success, winning a Memorial Cup and the fans, I think they just need an ownership group that they can rally around and I think this is a good group to move forward with,” said Clare.

The Bucks are the first expansion franchise since Wenatchee Wild joined the BCHL in 2016. The $1.2 million franchise tag is similar to the Wild’s fee, but a little more than what the Trail Smoke Eaters paid when they entered the league in 1995.

The Smoke Eaters Society bought the Bellingham Ice Hawks franchise of the BCHL and moved it to the Silver City to become the BCHL Smoke Eaters for around $50,000.

The Trail Smoke Eaters Society sold 90 per cent ownership of the team to Minnesota’s Rich and Annie Murphy in 2016 for $600,000. The Murphys have since invested millions more back into the team, the Trail Memorial Centre and the community.

Clare looks forward to working with the Bucks and says there is great potential for an East-West Kootenay cooperative relationship when it comes to recruiting, ticket sales, preseason games and promotion.

“It works good for us,” added Clare. “It can give us a rivalry if we work together and down the line it would be nice to have more teams in this area, but we’ll see.”

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