Within their age group, they have staked a claim as one of the top eight teams in the world.
The Cariboo Cougars joined the ranks of the international elite when they posted their best-ever record at the Mac's AAA Midget Hockey Tournament, which ended on New Year's Day in Calgary. The 15- to 17-year-old Cats finished the prestigious event with a 3-1-1 record, their only loss a 3-2 overtime setback against Pirati Chomutov of the Czech Republic in the playoff quarterfinals.
The Cougars were competing in the Mac's -- considered the unofficial world championship in the midget division -- for the seventh time in their history. In round-robin play they were the highest-scoring team, with 25 goals in four games.
While the Cariboo club was bitterly disappointed with the OT loss in the playoffs, head coach Trevor Sprague and his players are proud of what they accomplished.
"The guys played well as a team and grew closer as a team just on their work ethic," Sprague said. "I think they turned a lot of heads, probably being in the toughest pool in the tournament."
With an 8-1 win against the Winnipeg Wild, a 6-3 victory against the Calgary Northstars, a 4-4 draw with the Prince Albert Mintos and a 7-2 pasting of the Edmonton South Side Athletic Club Athletics, the Cats placed first in their pool and that landed them in the do-or-die contest against Pirati Chomutov. In that game, the Cougars took a 1-0 lead into the third period and were ahead 2-1 later in the final frame but, while shorthanded, gave up an equalizer with 8:55 left to play. Early in overtime, Pirati Chomutov scored the winner on a two-on-one break.
"Our power play had opportunities to win us the game but we had a lot of missed nets," said Sprague, whose team went 1-for-6 with the man-advantage. "That was a little bit of our downfall. In the third period we also got away from playing the body a little bit and had a couple penalties that were unfortunate."
Logan Styler scored both goals for the Cougars.
Pirati Chomutov went on to lose 4-2 to the Vancouver Northwest Giants in its semifinal game. In the other semi, the Carolina Junior Hurricanes downed the Saskatoon Contacts 5-4. In the championship final, the Giants -- the Cougars' biggest rival in the B.C. Hockey Major Midget League -- beat the Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime for their second Mac's title. The Giants also claimed gold in 2009.
With 11 points in five games, Cougars forward Liam Blackburn led this year's tournament in scoring and was handed the Lifemark Sports Physiotherapy Award for that accomplishment. He was also named to the Mac's first all-star team.
"It's just another confidence-booster," said the 16-year-old Blackburn, a prospect of the Western Hockey League's Victoria Royals. "It shows that the hard work paid off a little bit. It was a nice award to get. I didn't even think I got that many points. I was just playing each team one at a time and it was just going well.
"We probably played our best hockey of the year," Blackburn added. "I think if we keep playing like that, we'll keep going through the season pretty easily."
Brad Morrison, a Prince George Cougars draft pick, piled up eight points at the Mac's and joined Blackburn as a first-team all-star. As well, the 16-year-old Morrison claimed the Ricoh Plus/Minus Award and the Stu Peppard Memorial Trophy as the most sportsmanlike player.
Cariboo goaltender Nathan Warren didn't have his name called in the post-tournament awards ceremony, which Sprague considered an oversight. The 17-year-old Warren saw duty in all five games -- including a relief appearance in the game against the Northstars -- and was spectacular.
"This is the best hockey that I've seen him play," Sprague said. "He turned a lot of heads. [Former NHL goalie] Kelly Hrudy came down and talked to him after one game so it was pretty good for him to have that conversation with that man."
The Cougars will resume their MML season on Saturday when they host the Valley West Hawks (1 p.m., CN Centre). The Cats, with an 18-6-0 record, currently occupy third place in the standings, while the Hawks are sixth at 9-9-6.
After their Mac's result, the Cougars are more determined than ever to take a run at a Canadian title this season. To grab a spot in the Telus Cup national championship tournament, they'll have to win the MML playoff crown and then beat the Alberta representative in a best-of-three regional series.
"That's our goal -- to go to the Telus Cup and these guys have got to believe in each other that they can do it," Sprague said. "That's what this tournament has done for us and that's why we go to it every year -- to see who we can compete against and where we fit in in Canada. I would say we're probably in the top six in Canada right now."