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By Ian Gustafson
With the 2018 RBC Cup underway in Chilliwack, B.C., there has been plenty of talk around the Prospera Centre about the last time the hometown Chiefs made a run to Canada’s National Junior A Championship.

Led by future first-round NHL draft pick Jeff Tambellini, who earned MVP and Top Scorer honours, the Chiefs claimed BCHL and Doyle Cup titles to advance to the 2002 national tournament in Halifax, N.S.

Chilliwack fashioned a 3-1 record in the preliminary round, good for second place, but lost 4-3 to the OCN Blizzard in the semifinals to end their dreams of a national title.

“That was one of the best teams I’ve played on in my entire career,” Tambellini says 16 years later. “It was an outstanding group; looking back [head coach] Harvey Smyl had built such an amazing team, and we really had everything.

“Leadership, veteran defence and strong goaltending that they brought in throughout the year. They really built the team to have success.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Tambellini remembers being down two games to the Vernon Vipers in the BCHL final before banding together and reeling off four straight wins, and coming back again against the Drayton Valley Thunder in the Doyle Cup before three-straight wins catapulted them into the RBC Cup.

“Those are two tipping points late in the playoffs that we overcame being behind in a series and finding a way to come back,” he says. “We had such good character in that room that it’s not a surprise looking back.”

The 2001-02 season was a career year for Tambellini, who took home the RBC National Junior A Player of the Year award in his final season of junior hockey after racking up 46 goals and 117 points in only 34 games.

Not surprisingly, though, he is quick to spread around the praise.

“I think the main thing here is I had amazing linemates; I played with David Van Der Gulik and Gabe Gauthier, who were two outstanding players,” he says. “One of the advantages that I had was we had a team that was so deep with offensive guys that teams didn’t know how to match our other lines.”

The two seasons Tambellini spent in the Fraser Valley were an important step in his growth both on and off the ice, and it all goes back to the man behind the bench.

“It developed me in so many ways, I went to Chilliwack to play for Harvey Smyl and he was the guy that truly believed that he could develop me into a better junior hockey player to get me to the collegiate level,” Tambellini says.

“He didn’t just train us to be better hockey players, he wanted us to be better men. There were so many areas that developed me as a player and person, but it all led back through Harvey.”

After Chilliwack, Tambellini spent three seasons in the maize and blue of the University of Michigan, winning silver with Canada at the 2004 IIHF World Junior Championship and earning Second Team All-American honours as a junior.

He played 242 NHL games during a 12-year pro career, reaching the Stanley Cup Final with the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 before heading overseas for his final six seasons.

“The Vancouver season was far and above the most exciting year just because the team we had and for me to be a part of what they had built over six or seven years leading up to that in time for a really amazing playoff run,” Tambellini says. “As a Vancouver kid I couldn’t have asked for more.”

After calling it a career last summer, Tambellini stepped behind the bench as an assistant coach at Michigan. But he will be back in the BCHL next season; on April 27, he was named head coach and general manager of the Trail Smoke Eaters.

It’s a homecoming of sorts – the Tambellinis are hockey royalty in Trail; grandfather Addie helped the Smoke Eaters win gold at the 1961 IIHF World Championship, and dad Steve wore the red and white of Team Canada at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games.

“I always loved this side of the game,” he says. “I went the U of M to get a degree so I could be in the management side. When the opportunity came up in Trail it was something I was really excited about. I think at the junior level you have an opportunity to make an impact on players’ lives and careers and how they’re developing as men.

“It’s just an exciting opportunity to get these kids in and develop them into good young men who are going to be great people when they leave my team.”