The Trail Smoke Eaters hired a new Head Coach and General Manager on Friday – one with distinguished Silver City ties.
The Smokies named Jeff Tambellini as head coach and GM for the upcoming season. The son of Steve Tambellini, former Jr. Smoke Eater, NHLer and current scout with the Anaheim Ducks, and grandson to Adolf Tambellini, a Trail native, longtime resident and member of the ’61 World Champion Smoke Eaters, Jeff brings an excellent hockey pedigree.
“It’s been a surreal week,” said Jeff in a phone call en route to Trail Monday. “Coming from Michigan, just finishing up a season there, graduated, then the announcement Friday about the GM and coach for Trail. Just being able to come back to Trail, to me it’s so exciting with the history of the family there. My great grandfather came over, my grandfather playing there, and just the connections I have to that city, and to where the team is going. Put it all together and it’s been an amazing experience so far.”
For Smoke Eaters Director of Hockey Operations, Craig Clare, the addition of Jeff to the Smoke Eaters legacy is an undeniably exciting one, but stressed that it wasn’t his last name that secured him the job.
“Obviously it helps, but I think what was more important was the experiences that Jeff had gone through, his work ethic, his professionalism, and his knowledge of the game that plays a bigger factor than his ties to the community. But again, that helps and also speaks for the town and the quality of hockey people this town has produced, and it carries on through generations, and now that it’s coming back, it’s pretty special.”
The Smokies front office received a variety of applicants for the coaching position, but after talks with Tambellini, Clare said his love for the game and the city became evident.
“We’re very excited,” said Clare. “But as we went through the process, the discussions I had with Jeff, especially his passion for not only the town of Trail but the Trail Smoke Eaters, and his vision on what type of team he wants to build and the culture he wants to instil. We talked about developing players, and how he likes to do that, so everything just really aligned.”
The return to the BCHL is almost a ‘full-circle’ moment for Tambellini who played with the Chilliwack Chiefs from 2000-02 earning MVP and top-scorer honours while leading the Chiefs to Fred Page Cup (BCHL) and Doyle Cup (Pacific Region) titles.
“It’s a crazy world, you first develop as a player in the BCHL, and then your second career coming in and I’m back there right away,” said Tambellini. “But I really believe in that league and believe what it represents, it’s kids who want to pursue the game and also to pursue an education.”
The Port Moody product earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan where he excelled, scoring 129 points in 124 games and leading the Wolverines to two conference championships.
He was selected 27th overall by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, and went on to play 12 years of professional hockey with the NHL Kings, New York Islanders, and Vancouver Canucks, and in Europe. He skated in 242 NHL games, including a Stanley Cup Finals appearance with the Canucks in 2011.
The 34-year-old retired from professional hockey in 2017 and returned to Michigan as an Assistant Coach for the 2017-2018 season and also to complete his degree. He coached and played under the tutelage of coaching icon Mel Pearson, who has worked as an associate or head coach in the NCAA since 1985.
“We had such a great staff there,” said Tambellini. “The guy (Pearson) has done it for such a long time, and the way he recruits, the way he teaches, the type of teams he wants to build. Knowing him as a player and then as a coach to him was a great experience, just the comfort level. He really gave me a good opportunity to progress … very fortunate to get to work with him.”
Last season the Wolverines compiled a 22-15-3 record en route to the NCAA tournament, and made it all the way to the Frozen Four only to lose 4-3 in the semifinal to Notre Dame on a last second goal.
Tambellini’s move to the Smoke Eaters is his first head-coaching and GM position, but his experience in hockey development outweighs his relatively short time behind the bench.
“It was something we talked about for sure, but it was something that as our discussions went on, it quickly went away from that,” said Clare. “I’m confident that his experience and the way he sees the game, the coaches he had, and the vision that we talked about and how we’re going to develop players, it was a question I had, but we got past that pretty early.”
Tambellini replaces former Smoke Eaters coach Cam Keith, who was let go at the end of the season. Trail made strides in the two years that Keith was at the helm but fell in five games to the Wenatchee Wild in the Interior Division final last month.
Tambellini has already spoken to most of the Smoke Eaters players and recruits, watched video, and was impressed with the team’s skill, character, and the culture built by Smoke Eater staff and owners Rich and Annie Murphy. Last year, Trail drew record crowds, and posted a 32-21-4-1 record, with the season highlight a Game 7 win over the Penticton Vees in the Interior semifinal – contributing factors not lost on Tambellini.
“I’ve talked to 98 per cent of our line up and recruits so far,” he added. “I’ve been really impressed with Cam Keith and Craig Clare, with Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, they’ve recruited good people and built a great team. One of the most surprising things is how forunate I’m going to be for the team I’m going to walk into.”
The Smoke Eaters will host a meet-and-greet opportunity for the public on Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m. at the Smoke Eaters main office at the Trail Memorial Centre.