The Trail Smoke Eaters skated to a 5-1 victory over the National Women’s Team (NWT) on Monday night at the Trail Memorial Centre (TMC).
But the game was never about the outcome.
Trail Smoke Eaters owner Rich Murphy was thrilled to see fans in the building, and felt privileged to have the world’s best women’s hockey team visit a remote corner of B.C. to share their skill and experience with young female athletes, face off against the Smoke Eaters, and bring respite to a town that lives and breathes hockey.
“Heck, we have Team Canada here, and to get the community back in the rink was great to see,” said Murphy. “It’s been about 18 months, it’s been a long time, and to start it off with this event before our home opener on Saturday was great.”
Team Canada opened the scoring and surprised the home team, when Sarah Fillier burst into the Smoke Eaters zone and wired a shot over the blocker of goalie Evan Fradette just 66 seconds into the first period.
The skilled forward is a deft puck-handler and playmaker, with speed, agility and a hockey IQ that’s off the charts.
It is also the Ontario native’s first trip to BC and the Kootenays.
“It’s been awesome,” Fillier told the Times after the game. “We’ve been on the road for a week now and been to some really cool places.
“I’ve never been to BC so to drive through the mountains and get to stay here, especially a small town it’s been awesome. I’m from a small town at home so to be in a small town in BC it’s kind of cool to experience the differences. We’ve had a lot of fun so far, and we just enjoy being together.”
For 1,200 mask-wearing, double-vaxed fans, the return to the rink felt almost normal – with a sold out capacity COVID crowd (50 per cent), the crew back in the Spud Shack, intermission antics, dancing and kissing cams, and announcer Chris Kuchar’s resonating refrain for Smokies fans to “Make some noise!!”
And it didn’t take long before the Smoke Eaters shook off the early goal, and stormed back with tallies from Christian Lowe at 6:15 and Zach Michaelis for a 2-1 lead and ultimate game winner 12:17 into the first.
A three goal outburst in the second period gave the Smoke Eaters a 5-1 lead with goals from Brady Hunter, Corey Cunningham and Quinn Disher, as Trail outshot Canada 32-17 through 40 minutes.
Team Canada played its last meaningful game on Aug. 31 when they defeated Team USA 3-2 in overtime to win gold at the IIHF World Championship in Calgary. Although, the team may have lacked the jump a world championship final against the bitterest of rivals might inspire, they played fast and physical hockey in a scoreless back-and-forth third period.
“I think we’re happy,” said Fillier. “We had a couple break downs and the puck ended up in our net. If you take out that second period, it was a one-goal game, so there’s a lot of positives to take away and a lot to learn.”
The Smoke Eaters outshot Team Canada 40-23.
For Trail, the night was a special event for players and fans, and also helped kickstart the NWT’s journey to the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, China.
“We’re here to help them get better tonight,” said Murphy, who resides in Minnesota. “They are good, really, really good. They’re the best in the world, but it was such a treat for Annie and I to be here as well and see it.”
For Fillier, her trip to the Kootenays will also be memorable for the launch of the Pond to Podium program, sponsored by Canadian Tire and Hockey Canada. Fillier, along with Natalie Spooner and Micah Zandee-Hart, held a Q&A session with the Kootenay Wild girls hockey team that proved a rewarding experience for the 21-year-old.
“It was a really cool experience for me,” said Fillier. “To leave that room and be like wow, I could have influenced the younger generation, that’s a really big thing for me, because I feel like I was in their shoes a couple years ago.”
The game was also final preparation for the Smoke Eaters and the opening of the BCHL regular season on Friday, Oct. 8 in Cranbrook.
The Smoke Eaters return to the Trail Memorial Centre for the home opener on Saturday, Oct. 9 against the same Bucks.
“We are looking forward to get the season started,” added Murphy. “We have some work to do with our team, but at the end of the day, we’re back to hockey, we can have fans in the arena, and get things going again.”
The puck drops at 7 p.m. on Saturday at the TMC. Tickets can be booked online at tickets.trailsmokeeaters.com.