Mark Holick summed it up in a few words.
There's only one way to go for the Prince George Cougars and that's up.
Holick, who took over as head coach from the fired Dean Clark in late January with 25 games left, inheriting a Cougars team that went on to miss the playoffs, winning just 21 of 72 games. That's happened only once before in Holick's 19-year coaching career and he doesn't intend to repeat the pattern with this year's edition of the Cougars.
The Cougars have 19 returning players and not all of them will get their old jobs back. Two of the 25 roster spots will almost certainly be saved for European imports David Soltes and Martin Bobos. Soltes, a slick-skating right winger who played for the Slovakian under-18 national team, was picked fourth overall by the Cougars in the CHL import draft while Bobos, a six-foot-six, 237-pound behemoth on defence, also made the Slovakian U-18 squad.
That leaves a crop battling for the right to wear the snarling cat on the ice this season: two 20-year olds (G Mac Engel and F Klarc Wilson); four 19-year-olds (F Troy Bourke, F Zach Pochiro, F Jari Erricson, F Brett Roulston); 11 18-year-olds (G Brett Zarowny, D Marc McNulty, D Raymond Grewal, D Michael Mylchreest, D Tanner Lychynsky, F Jordan Tkatch, F Jake Mykitiuk, F Chase Witala, F Alex Forsberg, F Jarret Fontaine, F Joe Carvalho); three 17-year-olds (G Ty Edmonds, D Sam Ruopp and F Carson Bolduc); and a handful of 16-year-olds that includes D Shane Collins , D Tate Olson, F Brad Morrison, F Jansen Harkins and F Aaron Boyd.
"Any time you miss the playoffs there are jobs available," Holick said. "It's early, but I think our veterans came in in good condition and I was very happy with the fitness testing. The veteran games I've seen so far have been intense, with guys competing for spots. They will be judged on what we see and not what they've done in the past. At our exit meetings we emphasized putting the time in this summer and working hard and it appears the message was received and they're continuing that in camp."
Getting Forsberg back after he quit the team at midseason is key for the Cougars, the third-weakest team in the WHL offensively in 2012-13. While its doubtful leading scorer and Buffalo Sabres prospect Colin Jacobs will return from the pro ranks as a 20-year-old, the Cougars should be able to pick up a quality player to fill one of those overager spots once the Oct. 16 deadline arrives.
The Cougars were young last season and losing Forsberg and Daulton Siwak (who also quit the team in January), two of their top-six forwards, did not help the bottom line. The plus side of that is a lot of the young Cougars received a lion's share of icetime and that should benefit the team this season.
"We had a smaller D and obviously size was a mandate and Dallas brought some bigger boys in and the drafting of Bobos will help," said Holick. "We're still fairly young and inexperienced back there but hopefully with that steep learning curve some of those kids had there it will work out."
Holick, who turns 45 on Sept. 5, is a native of Penticton who played four seasons as a winger for the Saskatoon Blades and New Westminster Bruins, good enough to get drafted in 1986 by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He got his start in coaching as an assistant in the BCHL with the Penticton Panthers and took the South Surrey Eagles all the way to the Royal Bank Cup championship in 1998 before resurfacing in the WHL as head coach of the Kootenay Ice for three seasons, from 2007-2010. He then went to the AHL for a two-year stint as head coach of the Syracuse Crunch, the Anaheim Ducks' top farm team. Holick started out last season as a Ducks scout when he ran into Cougars GM Dallas Thompson, who offered him the job with 25 games left.
Jason Becker is back as the assistant coach.
The Cougars have four days of practice ahead of them this week before they board the bus Friday for Edmonton, where they begin the preseason Saturday morning against the Red Deer Rebels. They open the season on the road in Portland Sept. 20 and have their home opener Sept. 27 against Kamloops.
The Cougars, who have missed the playoffs in four of the last six seasons, ranked dead-last in attendance in 2012-13 among the 22 WHL teams, averaging just 1,840 spectators per game in a building that seats 5,582. Everyone on the team agrees on what it will take to reverse that trend -- develop a habit of playing winning hockey.
"You have to win games and you have to put a product on the ice that fans will come and support and I think we're getting there," said Holick. "That culture of wanting to be a hockey player has to be first and foremost. We want the guys to excel in their sport and with that you obviously mature as a young man and our job is to guide them away from the rink as well.
"They're not all going to make the NHL. We want our guys to not take any shortcuts. We want to make sure we're a high-paced, high-tempo team and a physical group with a bunch of snarly kids who will do whatever they can to win games. We have to hold these kids accountable but it's our job to teach them so they learn and get better."