Tambellini climbing hockey’s ladder, again

The lessons about life and sport Jeff Tambellini learned playing minor hockey in Port Moody are serving him well in his new role as the coach and general manager of the BC Hockey League’s Trail Smoke Eaters.

In fact, they’ve fuelled Tambellini’s entire journey through hockey that’s taken him from the BCHL as a player to the University of Michigan, stints with three National Hockey League teams and several years with various pro teams in Switzerland and Sweden.

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Through those 16 years of arduous bus rides, long plane trips and foreign lands, Tambellini said he never lost touch with the passion and joy for hockey instilled him by his minor coaches like Gord Couling, Dave Reynolds, Mark Kelsch, Brian Bunke and Glen Hara.

“I would come to the rink and they would make it so much fun,” said Tambellini, 34, in a phone interview ahead of his first visit as a coach to the old Tri-City stomping grounds of his youth (Friday, 7 p.m. at the Poirier Sport and Leisure Complex).

Tambellini’s dad, Steve, was in the twilight of his own nomadic career as a player and then became an executive for the Vancouver Canucks when the family settled in Port Moody’s Heritage Mountain neighbourhood.

The younger Tambellini said his dad’s experiences transitioning from player to hockey’s front offices made an impression and was his primary motivation to hang up his skates in 2017 so he could return to the University of Michigan to complete his degree in sports management as well as cut his teeth behind the bench as an assistant coach with the school’s varsity hockey team.

A week after Tambellini graduated with his degree, he accepted the job offer in Trail.

“It was an amazing opportunity,” Tambellini said, especially as both his parents grew up in the Kootenay town known for the towering smokestack that rises above the giant zinc and lead smelting plant that is its major employer. “Things happen at quite a pace.”

So fast, in fact, Tambellini said he hasn’t had much time to reconnect with old family and friends as he tries to build a successful program that’s had its challenges so far this season. Coming into Friday’s game against the Express, the Smoke Eaters have 11 wins in 32 games and sit in last place in the Interior division.

This is when those life lessons learned in the bowels of arenas in Port Moody, Port Coquitlam and Coquitlam come home to roost, Tambellini said.

“You’ve got to teach, make them feel like they’re getting better,” he said. “You have to prepare them to handle all the obstacles.”

Tambellini said taking the reigns of a junior team so soon after his own career as a player ended provides him a unique opportunity to relate to his young charges the challenges of the journey ahead of them, especially if they want to make it to the National Hockey League.

“You have to show them how hard it actually is,” Tambellini said. “You can give them first-hand advice that this is what it takes and the price you have to pay to get it done.”

So far, Tambellini said, he’s had a receptive audience.

“There’s a lot of layers to this,” he said. “Helping these kids get better is one thing, but at the end of the day you’re hoping to get these young men to school and to develop the right habits in their role as young men growing up.”

And just like the players he’s coaching, Tambellini is hoping his experience with the Smoke Eaters will be a springboard up hockey’s ladder — this time on the management side.

“As a player, you’re always chasing the NHL, doing everything you can to get to that level,” he said. “In your second career, you’re doing the same thing.”

Tambellini will be bringing with him to Coquitlam another promising young prospect out of Port Moody, Kent Johnson. 

The rookie forward, who played his minor hockey at the North Shore Winter Club and attended the Burnaby Winter Club Academy, is already one of the Smoke Eaters’ top scorers, producing at almost a point-a-game pace. At 16 years-old, Johnson is also the team’s youngest player.

Johnson was drafted in the 10th round of the Western Hockey League’s bantam draft  in 2017 by the Everett Silvertips.

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