In the lingo of the young, anything but a playoff appearance will be an epic fail.
As the Prince George Cougars start their 19th Western Hockey League season representing this city, they need -- absolutely and unequivocally -- to win considerably more games than they lose. They must secure a playoff spot and, once in the post-season, a couple of series victories would be a huge bonus.
Dare we dream for a banner, which would be the first for the Prince George incarnation of the franchise? Tempting, but one baby step at a time.
The Cats need to have a big year because they have a lineup that's more than capable of success. Underachieving simply won't be acceptable. But, there's also a bigger picture here, and that's the long-term health of the organization.
For years now, attendance at home games has been in a steady, alarming and sad decline. Sad, especially, for those of us who remember sold-out buildings in the mid- to late-1990s, a period of time in which the Cougars were famous for having the best fans in the WHL.
Bums in seats have become empty seats. Empty sections, in fact. And while owner Rick Brodsky has repeatedly stated he doesn't want to move the Cougars to another city, he can't indefinitely justify having his team play in an empty barn. From a business standpoint, that's suicide.
Now, the Cougars could have the slickest marketing department this side of the NBA -- yes, that's basketball, but the NBA really does 'get it' when it comes to connecting with fans -- but the only real way to increase interest is to win. It's as simple as that, even if the act of winning isn't.
The last time the Cougars won more than 40 games was 1999-2000. That year, they went 43-25-4, finished second in the Western Conference and, in the playoffs, eventually lost in the conference final to the Spokane Chiefs.
Since that time, the Cats have basically been swung around by the tail by the rest of the league. In the 12 regular seasons that have followed, they have finished above the .500 mark just three times (2001-02, 2005-06 and 2006-07). That means there have been nine losing seasons, including the last five in a row.
And the playoffs? From 2000-01 to 2011-12, the Cougars missed the post-season five times, suffered first-round eliminations five times, were knocked out in the second round once and made it to the conference final once. That run came in the spring of 2007 when Devin Setoguchi -- acquired by general manger Dallas Thompson early in the season -- used his sublime talent to lead the Cougars to series wins against the Kamloops Blazers and top-ranked Everett Silvertips before a loss to the Vancouver Giants, who went on to claim their first Memorial Cup championship.
So yes, there has been the occasional blip of success for Brodsky's team and the occasional reason for excitement among Prince George's WHL-watchers in the past dozen years. But all the losses in between, and the frustration of a populace starving for a winner, led directly to the ever-increasing sea of empty seats in CN Centre on game nights.
To halt the trend of non-attendance and start to reverse it -- and to help stabilize the franchise in this city -- the 2012-13 Cougars have to show they're the real deal. They start their new season Saturday night in Everett and will also face off against the Silvertips on Sunday. The Silvertips will have top NHL prospect Ryan Murray on their blueline but will also start the season with nine rookies in their lineup, including three 16-year-olds, so the Cats will have a real opportunity to begin the year with a couple of victories.
Not to look too far ahead, but a season-opening winning streak would do wonders in bringing fans back to the team and building momentum. And, it's worth mentioning that the early schedule has been set up in the Cats' favour. The Silvertips were eighth in the Western Conference last season and Prince George's next opponent, Seattle (Sept. 28-29 at CN Centre), was ninth. Those two clubs, respectively, were four and two points ahead of the Cats last season.
The Cougars, 3-1-0-1 in the pre-season, will look to Colorado Avalanche draft pick Troy Bourke to lead them offensively this year and he's expected to get support from guys like Colin Jacobs, Alex Forsberg, Jordan Tkatch, Jari Erricson and Daulton Siwak. On D, the Cats have a solid top three in overagers Dan Gibb and Dallas Ehrhardt and 18-year-old Latvian import Rinalds Rosinskis. In goal, they have the capable tandem of Devon Fordyce and Brett Zarownny. Neither goalie has much experience at the WHL level, but both have shown they can stop the puck on a consistent basis.
The pieces are in place, and it's time to get to work.
Not an option.