Forty-four players from five Junior A leagues from across western Canada competed for a roster spot at the Team Canada West selection camp in Calgary Dec. 1-3, and in the end, Team West loaded up on Trail Smoke Eaters.
The Smoke Eaters will send four players to the 2019 World Jr. A Challenge (WJAC) in Dawson Creek, a historic number for the BCHL team. Leading the way are Smoke Eaters forwards Philippe Lapointe, Kent Johnson, and Owen Ozar, and defenceman Powell Connor who will don the maple leaf for Team Canada West at the WJAC, Dec. 7-15.
“We’re really excited to have four guys going,” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “All four of those guys have had an outstanding year, and three of the top-five points-per-game guys in the league. And Powell Connor, he’s had such an outstanding year on both sides of the puck. He’s probably one of the best two-way guys in our league, so we’re really thrilled for those guys, and hope they have an amazing experience.”
An unprecedented five Smokies players were invited to the selection camp and only 17-year-old goalie Logan Terness, one of the youngest players at the camp, missed the cut. The lofty number equals the total of past Trail players that competed at the event, including Ross Armour and Seth Barton in 2017, and Sam Mellor and Travis St. Denis in 2010.
“Congratulations to the four young men who have worked so hard to get where they’re at today, and to make that team is great,” said Smoke Eaters owner Rich Murphy. “How exciting it is for the City of Trail. We have some really good young men on our team, and we have great support, great fans, great billets that are taking care of these young men, and we couldn’t be happier.”
Lapointe, 19, was named the BCHL Player of the Week Tuesday and would be among the top scorers in the BCHL if not for an injury that sidelined the Chicago native for two months. The Smokies captain didn’t miss a beat upon his return, scoring in his first game back, and averaging almost two points per game, with 29 points in 15 games since joining the team Oct. 25.
Gifted playmaker, Johnson, who just turned 17, leads the BCHL in scoring with 23 goals and 59 points, while Ozar, a dynamic forward, also resides in the top-5 of BCHL scorers, collecting 13 goals and 39 points.
Smokies defender Connor has been a huge presence on the Smoke Eaters blue line this season. Combining physicality with skill, the six-foot-three, 190-pound blueliner has four goals and 18 points in 32 games with Trail.
Tambellini also knows what it’s like to play for Team Canada. He was selected to play for Team Canada Pacific in 2001, while with the Chilliwack Chiefs, and again for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships in 2003. The experience, says Tambellini, goes a long ways in learning how to win on a high-profile team.
“I know when we (the Chiefs) got to the playoffs, we were on a different level. Just learning how to perform with the highest stakes, it really helps at the end of the day at league finals. Just having that chance to play against the world’s top players goes a long way.”
The emergence of the Smoke Eaters as a top contender hasn’t happened over night, but can largely be attributed to Rich and Annie Murphy, who purchased the team in November, 2016. Since then, their commitment to the Smoke Eaters and the City has manifested itself in million-dollar upgrades to the Trail Memorial Centre, donations to a variety of non-profit groups, entertaining intermissions, and an average of 2,000 fans at every game.
“It was a challenge,” said Murphy. “When Annie and I bought the team and hired Craig Clare (director of hockey operations), the three of us along with our whole staff had a vision of what the team would look like and what we can do, and the piece I’d say was missing was the coaching piece. So we made the changes and they probably weren’t very popular at the time for some people, and that’s okay, I take the good with the bad.”
The Smoke Eaters hired Tambellini as head coach and GM in April, 2018 and the former NHLer immediately changed the team’s complexion and, ultimately, its culture. Despite rocky starts, under Tambellini the Smokies were much improved by the end of last season, and after an 0-6 start, he has righted the ship with this year’s group, winning 19 of 25 games since then.
“Jeff, first and foremost, has been a great hire,” said Murphy. “He’s so dedicated, he’s driven and he loves working and developing these young men, and that’s the type of person we want in Trail.”
Tambellini is also complimented by assistant GM Jeff Urekar, long time assistant coach Barry Zanier, and defensive coach Dustin Korlak, whose work on the back end has paid off substantially. This year’s Smokies team also boasts the most explosive offence in the BCHL, a result of shrewd recruiting and timely trades.
Although Murphy lives in Minnesota and is away from Trail much of the season, his passion and interest remains wholly invested with the Smoke Eaters. He talks to the coaches almost every day and is in constant contact with Clare.
“Look how far we’ve come in really a short period of time,” said Murphy. “It’s been only three-and-a half years and we’ve accomplished so much … As far as the quality of the product on the ice right now, we’ve come a long way. We’ve had some pretty good teams, but I think this year is going to be the best team we’ve had since Annie and I have owned the team.”
The Smokies contingent is the highest number from any team, with the BCHL making up 11 of the 22 players selected. The Chilliwack Chiefs also sent five players to the selection camp, however, only defenceman Xavier Henry cracked the WJAC line up.
Nanaimo Clippers forwards Ethan Scardina and Kyler Kovich, Brendan Budy from Langley, Prince George forward Nick Poisson, Luke Mylymok from Salmon Arm, and returning veteran Massimo Rizzo from Coquitlam were also named to the team.
The Penticton Vees historically have had the most players, 32, play in the WJAC, however, this year no Vees player made the Team West roster for the first time in WJAC history.
Team Canada West opens the WJAC against the U.S.A. on Saturday at 6 p.m. Canada East, Russia, and the Czech Republic are also participating. See Scoreboard on Pg. 11 for schedule.