The Trail Smoke Eaters organization can breathe a collective sigh of relief now that the COVID-19 shortened season has passed without incident and they’re back home with their families.
The BCHL salvaged a season, albeit with a different look, as 16 of 18 teams that participated were divided into five pods. The Smoke Eaters left for Penticton to play 10 games vs the Vees and 10 against the Cranbrook Bucks on Apr. 2 in their three-team pod, and played their final match Saturday night May 8 against the Penticton Vees at the SOEC. They were home early Sunday morning.
“It’s been an experience like no other,” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Tim Fragle. “Hotel, in your room, eat in your room, hang out in your room, walk or bus to the rink and then back to your room.
“We were on a pretty tight watch, not mixing in the community there. So the first two or three weeks flew by with the new setting and environment, but then it got really hard.”
In the fourth week, Trail began a seven-games-in-10-days stretch that severely impacted the Smokies players.
“It really took the mental and physical life out of our team,” said Fragle. “It was really challenging for us coaches, it got really hard then.”
The restrictions meant players and coaches could not see families or friends outside the bubble, visit businesses or restaurants, or go for a hike or a round of golf on their off days, they were largely confined to the hotel.
Yet, overall, Fragle is happy with the way the players handled the isolation. Despite a difficult process, the league administered weekly COVID tests of all players, and achieved its goal of no infections throughout the season.
And, from a hockey perspective, it enabled the coaching staff to identify shortcomings.
“I guess bigger picture, it was worth it because if I look at our group and what we thought we had, I’m sure glad we got to play these games because we need to improve on what we saw in these 20 games. And I’m thankful for that because it helps us prepare better for next season.”
The Smoke Eaters built a young team in anticipation of a shortened season, with 10 rookies and just two 20-year-old players on the roster. However, the team struggled offensively scoring 47 goals in 20 games while allowing 72 goals against.
“We just didn’t generate enough offence with any consistency,” said Fragle. “To be truthful we expected a few more guys to score and they didn’t, and against Penticton we really had a hard time generating offence against them.”
The Smokies finished with a respectable 9-11 record, going 1-9 against the league’s perennial powerhouse in the Vees, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, 8-2 versus the Cranbrook Bucks who embarked on their first year in the BCHL.
“If you look at our season as a whole, from the extended training camp and then into the pod season, we ended up finishing 16-13 on the year, and as a young team that’s probably where we deserved to be.”
Until recently, playoffs remained a question mark, yet, with the Apr. 23 restrictions on zone travel, the BCHL announced that there would be no post season.
“I think that was the expectation,” said Smoke Eaters director of hockey and business operations Craig Clare. “That was never really the plan and after playing so many games in such a short period of time, their bodies need a rest.”
In the Smoke Eaters absence, Clare and assistant coach/GM Jeff Urekar ran development camps at the Trail Memorial Centre.
“It went really well,” said Clare. “Our numbers were good, and I think all the players had a great time. Jeff did an unbelievable job with the kids, and every age group from U-7 to our midget-junior levels, and female Wildcats, was really good.
“It really helped us (the Smoke Eaters) and helped the local players get on the ice for an extra month.”
In the end, despite the rigorous schedule, isolation, and no post season, the Smoke Eaters new head coach and GM is pleased that there was a season, but a year after being hired, Fragle is still looking forward to playing in front of packed Trail Memorial Centre.
“We’re thankful for the opportunity to play, and change the team going into next year,” added Fragle. “We pegged it as a development season all year and it sure helped.
“It was a huge sacrifice all the players made to go there for six weeks, but if I look back at it now, I’m sure glad we did because it’s only going to help us moving forward.”