Things were supposed to be different for the Prince George Cougars this year. With new owners and a new slogan—The New Ice Age—the team’s fortunes were supposed to improve and a renewed excitement for Cougars hockey was building.
The momentum was apparent last weekend as the Cougars opened their home schedule with two games against the Kelowna Rockets and 5,659 loud fans came out. The Rockets didn’t play along though, exploding for five second-period goals on their way to a 7–2 opening night win. Then they followed it up the next night with an 8–2 win. Was this the same old Cougars? Was The New Ice Age already starting to thaw?
New owner Greg Pocock says no. “At the end of opening night we were saying goodnight to our fans leaving the building, there wasn’t a single person without a smile on their face,” he says. “People had a brilliant time and all the feedback we’ve had from that evening has been beyond belief supportive.”
But Pocock draws a distinction between the excitement off the ice and the drive to improve on it. “I hate to lose,” he says. “I just do not have the stomach for it and that’s going to be part of the challenge moving forward for us… to temper that competitiveness and drive on a nightly basis and make sure we’re focused on the long term.”
It's been 20 years since the Cougars packed up, left Victoria and headed to Prince George in northern B.C. Since then they've only managed a winning record twice and have missed the WHL playoffs four times out of the last five years. As can be expected, losing hockey games led to low attendance, lack of enthusiasm and a disconnect between ownership and the community. The losing also brought whispers and rumours that the club may move—places like Winnipeg and Nanaimo were often mentioned.
In March, then-owner Rick Brodsky decided it was time to put the franchise up for sale. In stepped local businessman Greg Pocock, a Cougars fan since their Victoria days, to purchase the team and keep it right where it was. Pocock had a group of investors, which included former Cougar players Dan Hamhuis of the Vancouver Canucks and Eric Brewer of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and together they are ushering in a new era of Cougars hockey.
The new ownership group is determined to right the ship and get Prince George residents excited for their hockey club again. "More than anything it's a commitment to the community," Pocock says. "It's a commitment to the players that we are going to be the model mid-market franchise in the Western Hockey League, if not the Canadian Hockey League. We're going to do everything within our power to win a championship."
They started by remodelling the dressing rooms and adding new weight rooms, new equipment, and a player's lounge. They also hired a sports psychologist and a power-skating coach. "It's been crazy, the change around here," Cougar veteran and Prince George native Chase Witala says. "It's been unbelievable, they're treating us like pros. I can't say enough good things about it."
But new cold tubs only go so far. To improve on the ice the team began an exhaustive search for a new GM and offered the job to Todd Harkins, the club's former head scout. Harkins is excited for the opportunity. "It's a group of people that understand the game, understand business and want to make sure the franchise is successful in Prince George."
Every player drafted by Prince George got a phone call from both Hamhuis and Brewer this past spring—which has to be a thrill to a young hockey player. The NHLers' involvement should also help to engage the fans. "They've maintained a long-term connection with the community," says Pocock. "They've married Prince George girls, both of them are back here during the summer months. There's a real connection and that's something that was lacking, we really had to turn it around." He goes on to point out that season ticket sales are up five-fold for the Cougars and that through three home games they have already equaled 13 percent of their total attendance last season.
Despite the opening night loss, playing in front of a packed house was a new experience for the Cougars players. "That was pretty special," Witala said. "I've personally never played in front of a crowd like that in my career here. They're great fans and hopefully we can get a few more wins here."
Harkins looked at the two losses to Kelowna as a learning experience for his young club. He was happy to see them bounce back three nights later to beat the Swift Current Broncos at home. Prince George is a young club with some skill players who on the rise. Most notable is Harkins's son, Jansen, who is a 2015 NHL Draft prospect.
Along with Jansen, players like Haydn Hopkins, Colby McAuley and Josh Anderson are all part of a young core the club hopes can get them where they want to be. "We have a plan in place to build around our younger players and continue to develop our older players," Harkins says. "It's through the draft process, you have to identify the players and make sure they show up and commit to our organization. I think in the past they've struggled with that."
Recruiting players has been an issue for Prince George in the past. Critics point to a number of reasons for that--including the on-ice record and the location. The team is isolated from the rest of the WHL, which is why some teams will play back-to-back games against the Cougars so that they can avoid having to make a return trip. But Harkins doesn't believe geography is a hindrance to the Cougars recruiting draft picks. "Everybody travels in our league so I think that's a bit of a cop-out," He says. "I think if we can create a facility that kids want to live in most of their hockey life... it allows us to be able to treat these kids while they're here as professionals. I think all that's a package that you can easily sell to parents and kids about our organization."
Making the playoffs is a definite goal for the Cougars, and with a Western Conference that looks to be wide open this season, it's not that far-fetched for the young team. Harkins says he has the green light from his bosses to make any moves that will help the team get there, something that might not have been an option under the previous regime. For a player like Witala, who has spent his three-year WHL career with Prince George, it's exciting to think about. "It's definitely a goal," says Witala. "Not just to make the playoffs but to make a run."
Witala's enthusiasm reflects the attempt by Pocock, Harkins and the rest of the new ownership group to truly turn the tide in Prince George and create a culture of winning. "We're not just guys who have put some money into this thing and are going to play around with it like a toy," Pocock says. "It's a business and it's a passion and we're going to do everything within our power to make sure it is successful."