Although there are still 11 games to go in the British Columbia Hockey League regular season, Prince Albert’s Owen Ozar and the rest of the Trail Smoke Eaters are already entering into a playoff mindset.
“I got the chance to play in 12 playoff games as a rookie last year (when the Smoke Eaters lost in the quarter-final round to the Vernon Vipers) and it’s a lot different from what you see in the regular season,” Ozar said. “There’s a lot more intensity out there and every goal is a big one.
“The game is a lot faster, especially when you are a first-year guy, but I think the experience that we have on our roster is going to help us out in the long run.”
The 19-year-old forward is part of a Smoke Eaters side that is in second place in the BCHL’s Interior Division with a 29-14-2-1, which is the fourth-best in the 17-team loop.
It took a little bit for the team to get up to speed, however, as they started the campaign with a six-game losing streak.
“We had a really good camp and I think a lot of us thought that we were just going to be good right away,” Ozar said.
“(Smoke Eaters head coach) Jeff (Tambellini) made it clear to us that we weren’t going to be a good team without putting in hard work at practice and that’s when things started to turn around. We have two lines that could be the top line on any team in the league, a strong defence and two really good goaltenders with Logan Terness and Matteo Paler-Chow.”
Ozar has certainly played a key role in the team’s success as he’s second in the BCHL in scoring with 56 points in 43 games ahead of a Friday night matchup with the Wenatchee Wild.
The Smoke Eaters have three of the top scorers in the BCHL this season as Ozar is sandwiched between 17-year-old Kent Johnson (82 points in 43 games) and 20-year-old Michael Colella (54 points in 47 games), who is committed to the NCAA’s Colorado College Tigers.
Johnson, who is on the same line as Ozar, is expected to play for the NCAA’s Michigan Wolverines next fall and is widely considered to be a potential top-10 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.
“He just loves the game,” Ozar said. “He’s an incredibly skilled player and he tries things on the ice that most guys don’t even think about.
“I think his game is going to translate well to college and I’m sure he’ll be a high pick at the draft next year.”
Ozar, who will be joining the NCAA’s Denver Pioneers in 2021, is also coming off the chance to play for Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge last month in Dawson Creek, B.C.
Although the team missed out on the playoffs, the experience was one that Ozar won’t forget.
“It was obviously disappointing to not be able to play for a medal, but it was pretty awesome to wear the maple leaf and represent my country,” Ozar said.
“The level of play was definitely higher than what it is in the BCHL. It was quite a bit faster and teams like Russia and the Czech Republic play some different systems than what other teams do in our league. I felt like I got more used to it as the tournament went on though and things have felt a lot easier for me since I came back to the Smoke Eaters.”