The times are certainly changing and challenging for the Trail Smoke Eaters and the BCHL.
The Smoke Eaters began their main camp last week, but rather than whittle down a 60-player camp over three days, and end it with a make-it-or-break-it Orange-vs-Black grudge match, the team will skate into the second half of September with all players still on board.
“We still have the same amount of guys so our extended training camp will be for the whole month of September,” said head coach and GM Tim Fragle. “We have 30 guys here and we’re going to continue to work with them.”
With the COVID-19 protocols in place, the Smoke Eaters, as well as all teams in the BCHL, had to change the way they prepared for a hoped-for season.
The Smokies camp consisted of two squads of 15 players that will continue to prepare into an extended camp, with exhibition matches in four-team cohorts scheduled for October.
“Last week we really focused on a lot of skill work, and getting back into the swing of things. This week we’ll get to more team stuff, and gradually build as the month goes on here, to hopefully play some games in October.”
The BCHL set a start time of Dec. 1, with the Smoke Eaters first exhibition game tentatively slated for Oct. 4.
Fragle says he would like to add another experienced defenceman and forward but was happy with the way the veteran Smoke Eaters performed.
The Smokies most recent acquisition, defenceman Jordan Hendry, is expected to join the team this week.
With the delay in the start time and the extended camp, there has been little player movement in the Canadian Junior Hockey League, making veteran acquisitions all the more difficult.
“We have some good young guys here, but experience is obviously a real important thing. If you look at the last successful teams in the league they always have a good contingent of older players.”
Another unfortunate COVID casualty has been the movement of players from the U.S. to Canada. Due to the Canada-U.S. border closure, the Smoke Eaters will only see three of six commited American-born players join the team. Two of those players are currently undergoing quarantine and will be free to skate with the Smokies on Friday.
“We only have one other American slotted to come in in the next couple weeks. Just with the border and everything, the six kids we committed to, three of them wanted to come and try but they don’t feel safe until the border opens.”
It’s a dilemna faced by all 18 BCHL teams, however, the league is intent on starting Dec. 1 and developed an alternative plan if teams are not allowed to have fans attend their games.
League Executive Director Steven Cocker said that the number-1 goal of the BCHL was to get players back on the ice.
“The board believes we presented a plan to safely have fans in the building and that remains our goal.
“At the end of the day, we want to do right by our players, teams, our league and our fans and that means having a 2020-21 season.”
With the extended camp, finding billet families for the extra players was another hurdle that Trail was able to clear.
“Because we are carrying 30 players, we did need a few more than normal,” said Fragle. “That did create a few challenges, but then we had a lot of families step up in the last couple weeks. So that was a great thing in terms of our community, because I know there are other places that are having a hard time getting billets.”
Despite the many challenges and litany of protocols, the Smoke Eaters coach was proud of the way the Smoke Eater players, rookies and veterans, comported themselves on and off the ice.
“The players have been totally open to the procedures. We’re wearing masks in the rink, we’re trying to social distance when we can, they’re not showing up to the rink like they normally would an hour or two before, we’re limiting their time here, and they’ve been really respectful of that … So give them a pat on the back the first week, it went well – we just have to keep it going.”
The Smoke Eaters are also holding a power skating and skills camp for minor hockey aged players from Sept. 21 to Oct. 1.
For more info go to trailsmokeeaters.com.