Devastating is the only way to put it.
Riding a wave of success and fan support this season, the Trail Smoke Eaters had high hopes and huge expectations heading into the BCHL playoffs, until the unthinkable happened.
Due to the COVID-19 virus, Hockey Canada shut down hockey across the country on Thursday night, ending the Trail Smoke Eaters successful playoff run before it really got rolling. The Smokies were poised to take on the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in Round 2 of the Interior Division playoffs on Friday, after sweeping the Prince George Spruce Kings in the first round.
“I told these guys, that they were probably the best BCHL team we ever had, on and off the ice,” said Smoke Eaters director of hockey and business operations, Craig Clare. “And it’s difficult too, with the support that we get. We have people coming in and buying playoff tickets and getting really excited, and that’s tough as well to not have our players play for a BCHL championship and the fans, it’s tough and I feel bad for them.”
Averaging more than 2,000 fans a game, the Smoke Eaters will take a substantial hit on and off the ice, but taking the cue from the NHL and NBA that announced their seasons’ suspensions earlier in the day, was the only option for Hockey Canada and the BCHL.
“We’re dealing with young athletes, and were not talking about just the BCHL, we’re talking about the CJHL across the country,” said Clare. “And the logistics of getting these players home, and getting home safe.
“There’s a lot of unknowns, and I can’t speculate, but I think that was a lot that came into the decision. Was I a little bit surprise? Yes, but as the day went on, I figured this was where we were going.”
The Smoke Eaters completed one of their best seasons in BCHL history, finishing second in the Interior Division with a 36-17-2-2-1 record, it’s second most wins of all time and fewest losses in regulation. The Smokies had four players named to the BCHL All Star teams in Kent Johnson, Philippe Lapointe, Owen Ozar and Logan Terness. Johnson earned the Brett Hull trophy for the BCHL top scorer, the MVP and Most Sportsmanlike, while Terness earned Rookie of the Year honours.
“We fully support the decision,” said Clare. “It’s our world, our life, and our country. It’s unfortunate, with the group of players, and the support we get from the fans. But we have a really good group, a mature group, and they handled it as well as I could expect.”
The uncertainty of not knowing how far the Smoke Eaters could have gone, however, is what is most difficult for Clare.
“The biggest disappointment is there is no finality to any of this. They were really ready to get going. We were ready to play the next night against a tough team. If you look at the season we had and some of our players had, to not play it through to the end is really disappointing.”
The Smoke Eaters allowed just three goals in four games in its sweep of the Spruce Kings, were healthy and playing arguably some of their best hockey of the season. Trail was also coming off a 5-1 win over the Silverbacks in their final home game on Feb. 21, in front of over 2,600 fans.
“One of the coaches said to me, ‘If we would have lost to a better team in the first round, you can walk away knowing there was a result,’ in this one it just seems like – it’s not a waste because we had some brilliant performances – but it’s just the unknown. You can speculate where we could have went with this, but not being able to follow through, it’s tough.”
The Smoke Eaters gathered for a team meeting on Friday, the premature ending leaving the team devastated and empty.
“We wanted to get these players home safe before any other news came out on travel restrictions. Some have already left some are today. That is it, and now we just move on.”
The Smoke Eaters front office is in a holding pattern, with no hockey to scout, or camps to hold. The office is also closed until further notice, but all fans with playoff tickets will receive a refund.
“Hockey Canada has suspended all camps until further notice, so right now the one in Trail is cancelled and we’ll wait to see what news comes,” added Clare.